In Praise of Academic Engagement

I am just back from a stimulating symposium at Northwestern University focused on rethinking scholarship on online news, which led me to reflect on the value of such events, and a related seminar series we have an MSU for the Media and Information Department. Of course, the Quello Center that I direct organises many seminars, roundtables and lectures as well. While I appreciate these experiences, their very success leads me to worry about how to sustain a culture of academic engagement in the face of a developing – what should I call it – production culture. We might not fully appreciate and need to continually reinforce the significance of such opportunities for academics to engage each other face to face in constructive debates about issues and research.

Academics continue to enjoy a wonderful work environment, in my opinion, but we sometimes take these opportunities for listening to our colleagues, and discussing issues, theories and methods as just another event on our calendars. Instead, these occasions are an important part of the lifeblood of a university – something that makes the university and its academic units worth their existence. When academics are facing metrics on a number of fronts – publications, citations, outreach, impact, course evaluations, papers delivered and more – it is easy to view the seminar or conference as a distraction from the real work. You can almost hear colleagues thinking: ‘I better stay in at my computer screen and work on my paper / book / review / lecture.’

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The last thing we need is another metric for participation in seminars. That would kill the real payoffs of academic engagement, which are largely tacit learning that stimulates and broadens your own thinking about your research and teaching. The traditional Oxford colleges can bring their fellows together everyday for lunch. A social scientist will be sitting by a physicist or Buddhist scholar, and explaining their work to each other. We don’t have such regular opportunities as most American universities, but we do have the department seminars and related academic events that bring us together to engage with colleagues from different perspectives.

Fight against the academic metrics of the production culture by pushing away from the computer screen to sit down with other colleagues and discuss, critique, support and otherwise engage with their work. The more distant from your own focus, the better to connect with ideas you never imagined to be of value to you and whatever sits waiting for you on the computer screen.

Lisa Nakamura's Lecture
Lisa Nakamura’s Lecture

Thanks to my colleagues for organising the events that provide such opportunities.

UNESCO’s Connecting the Dots: Options for Future Action, 3-4 March 2015

UNESCO’s CONNECTing the Dots conference will reflect on a report of UNESCO’s Internet Study, entitled ‘Keystones to foster inclusive Knowledge Societies: Access to information and knowledge, Freedom of Expression, Privacy, and Ethics on a Global Internet’. Representatives from 180 Member States will be present to present and discuss the major themes of this report. It will be held at the headquarters of UNESCO at 7, place de Fontenoy, Paris, 75007, France. As a contributor to this study and the report, I will be there to help moderate, report, and summarize the conclusions of the two-day meeting.

My policy class at the Quello Center at MSU is reading the report, and will join the live stream of the conference. I hope you will do the same. Information about live streaming of the event will be on the conference Web site, so consider joining the conversation. UNESCO’s is doing all it can do to ensure that this is truly a multistakeholder consultation on how UNESCO can contribute to fostering an inclusive, global, open and secure Internet in the coming years.  UNESCO2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

Report available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/internet_draft_study.pdf

Conference Web Site at: http://en.unesco.org/events/connecting-dots-options-future-action

Quello Center Launch of Network Neutrality Impact (NNI) Study

On the day the FCC voted 3-2 for net neutrality rules, the Quello Center announced the launch of our ‘Net Neutrality Impact’ (NNI) study. After years of speculations and predictions about the implications of network neutrality, we will be able to study the actual consequences through a natural experiment created by the FCC’s ruling. So remember what you have claimed to the likely consequences of net neutrality, write them down, let us know, and follow our project at the Quello Center. Of course, we also welcome the involvement of other policy researchers who are as curious as we are about what will flow from this decision and how to capture these impacts in the most reliable and valid way.

Follow the project and the Quello Center on Twitter @QuelloCenter

See our announcement of the launch at: http://quello.msu.edu/launching-the-net-neutrality-impact-study/

Celebration of Net Neutrality Vote at FCC
Majority of FCC Celebrates Their Vote for Net Neutrality

 

Innovations in the Technology of Higher Education: Where is the Social Research?

My colleagues and I organized a preconference for the 2014 International Communication Association on innovations in the technologies of higher education, focusing particularly on developments around massive online open courses and related innovations. It took place in Seattle, Washington, on the 21st of May 2014. I worked with Dr Kendall Guthrie of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Brian Loader, the Editor of iCS, and Director, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of York; and Sarah Porter and Rebecca Eynon of the OII. We were able to attract major figures in this area, such as Kevin Guthrie, President of Ithaka, but we were not able to unearth a significant set of high-quality research papers. Why?

Higher education is described as being in a time of crisis. In the US, tuition costs have been escalating beyond the cost of inflation for some years, students are building up significant debt, whilst completion rates are in decline. The higher education system is said to be creaking under the strain of additional scrutiny from government, funders, parents and students, yet is struggling to re-invent itself to reduce costs whilst improving quality and increasing flexibility for learners. In a Europe still feeling the consequences of the financial downturn, universities are struggling to retain their public service ethos when budgets are under huge pressure. Elsewhere in the world, many countries plan dramatic expansion to their higher education systems to fuel their growing economies, but they are being held up by lack of infrastructure and the increased intellectual capital that is needed.

At the same time, higher education is becoming a global business, and yet universities are not equipped to fully embrace the potential or address the risks that this might bring. One question is whether the development of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free online courses are being offered by a wide range of universities and opened to students with any academic background, will be an institutional response to this challenge. They are attracting millions of students from across the globe. To what extent though is the MOOC really revolutionary and disruptive, or is it being used cynically by the most elite institutions to further increase their brand power and assert their superiority, whilst the middle tier of institutions lose student numbers and academic credibility? Do MOOCs hold the potential to support the developing world in its academic ambitions, or are they just another example of neo-colonialism?

Whether MOOCs succeed or fail, or quickly evolve to become something else, they offer an opportunity for the higher education system to consider its future models and to test out new approaches to the way that it does its business – how it creates courses and course materials, how it teaches, how it supports students, how it accredits degrees, how it markets itself, how it covers its costs or makes a profit.

There is another element to the mass online provision of higher education courses. Hidden behind the welcoming and inclusive publicity materials, sophisticated data collection and analysis tools are being created that will gather and analyse information about each student as they move through the system, as they learn, interact with each other and with the materials. This is extremely valuable data and, for the first time, universities will have access to live data about the study habits of many millions of students, together with their personal profile. The potential to use this data for the good, to develop increasingly adaptable and personalised learning systems, is huge; but therein also lies the potential for mis-use and, in the words of the for profit providers of education, for ‘brand differentiation’. What are the implications of this innovation, for good and for bad – and are we giving enough due care and attention to the way that allow this data to be used?

My colleagues thought these developments raise a rich array of research questions. For example:

  1. Is higher education really in crisis or is it really a success story of a system that has adapted over time, and will survive the current challenges without major change?
  2. What are the major innovation challenges for the higher education system and how can they best be addressed?
  3. What do MOOCs mean for the future of higher education? Are they just a marketing device for elite institutions, or can they really be a force for the ‘democratisation of education’?
  4. Which other affordances will enable the higher education system to innovate more effectively?
  5. What is the potential for the use of learner analytics and big data approaches to large-scale online education, and are there threats hidden in this advances?

These are only indicative of a far wider range of topics that could be explored around these innovations. And yet, where is the systematic, empirical research needed to address these questions? While our preconference drew much interest and some excellent papers, we expected far more work in this area. It is not new. Brian Loader and I pulled together an edited book during the last round of interest in this area, entitled Digital Academe. By all of our indicators, less work is being done in academia on the social and institutional implications of the Internet in higher education than at the turn of the century? Are we too close to academia to systematically and critically look at our own institutions?

Bill Dutton with Sarah Porter

Society and the Internet: a new reader for courses

A new book edited by Mark Graham and myself is in print and available for courses: Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives. It is published by Oxford University Press, and material about the book is available on their website at: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199662005.do

How is society being shaped by the diffusion and increasing centrality of the Internet in everyday life and work? By bringing together leading research that addresses some of the most significant cultural, economic, and political roles of the Internet, this volume introduces students to a core set of readings that address this question in specific social and institutional contexts.

Internet Studies is a burgeoning new field, which has been central to the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), an innovative multi-disciplinary department at the University of Oxford. Society and the Internet builds on the OII’s evolving series of lectures on society and the Internet. The series has been edited to create a reader to supplement upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses that seek to introduce students to scholarship focused on the implications of the Internet for networked societies around the world.

The chapters of the reader are rooted in a variety of disciplines, but all directly tackle the powerful ways in which the Internet is linked to political, social, cultural, and economic transformations in society. This book will be a starting point for anyone with a serious interest in the factors shaping the Internet and its impact on society.  The book begins with an introduction by the editors, which provides a brief history of the Internet and Web and its study from multi-disciplinary perspectives. The chapters are grouped into five focused sections: (I) Internet Studies of Everyday Life, (II) Information and Culture on the Line, (III) Networked Politics and Government, (IV) Networked Businesses, Industries, and Economies, and (V) Technological and Regulatory Histories and Futures.

A full table of contents is below:

Society and the Internet How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives

Manuel Castells: Foreword

Mark Graham and William H. Dutton: Introduction

Part I. Internet Studies Of Everyday Life

1: Aleks Krotoski: Inventing the Internet: Scapegoat, Sin Eater, and Trickster

2: Grant Blank And William Dutton: Next Generation Internet Users: A New Digital Divide

3: Bernie Hogan And Barry Wellman: The Conceptual Foundations of Social Network Sites and the Emergence of the Relational Self-Portrait

4: Victoria Nash: The Politics of Children s Internet Use

5: Lisa Nakamura: Gender and Race Online

Part II. Information And Culture On The Line

6: Mark Graham: Internet Geographies: Data Shadows and Digital Divisions of Labour

7: Gillian Bolsover, William H. Dutton, Ginette Law, And Soumitra Dutta: China and the US in the New Internet World: A Comparative Perspective

8: Nic Newman, William H. Dutton, And Grant Blank: Social Media and the News: Implications for the Press and Society

9: Sung Wook Ji And David Waterman: The Impact of the Internet on Media Industries: An Economic Perspective

10: Ralph Schroeder: Big Data: Towards a More Scientific Social Science and Humanities?

Part III. Networked Politics And Governments

11: Miriam Lips: Transforming Government by Default?

12: Stephen Coleman And Jay Blumler: The Wisdom of Which Crowd? On the Pathology of a Digital Democracy Initiative for a Listening Government

13: Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon: Online Social Networks and Bottom-up Politics

14: Helen Margetts, Scott A. Hale, Taha Yasseri: Big Data and Collective Action

15: Elizabeth Dubois And William H. Dutton: Empowering Citizens of the Internet Age: The Role of a Fifth Estate

Part IV: Networked Businesses, Industries AND Economies

16: Greg Taylor: Scarcity of Attention for a Medium of Abundance: An Economic Perspective

17: Richard Susskind: The Internet in the Law: Transforming Problem-Solving and Education

18: Laura Mann: The Digital Divide and Employment: The Case of the Sudanese Labour Market

19: Mark Graham: A Critical Perspective on the Potential of the Internet at the Margins of the Global Economy

Part V. Technological And Regulatory Histories And Futures

20: Eli M. Noam: Next-Generation Content for Next-Generation Networks

21: Christopher Millard: Data Privacy in the Clouds

22: Laura Denardis: The Social Media Challenge to Internet Governance

23: Yorick Wilks: Beyond the Internet and Web

Let us know what you think of our reader, and thanks for your interest.

Internet of Things: a social perspective

I have been quite interested in the Internet of Things since participating in a ‘roadmapping’ workshop organized by the TSB SIG on the topic. I chaired a group focused on the social science aspects of the IoT, which led to a working paper that is available online, entitled ‘A Roadmap for Interdisciplinary Research on the Internet of Things: Social Sciences’.

This eventually evolved into published article in Info, an Emerald journal: William Dutton, (2014) “Putting things to work: social and policy challenges for the internet of things”, info, Vol. 16 Iss: 3 Available soon at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?issn=1463-6697&volume=16&issue=3&articleid=17108501&show=pdf

I’ve also spoken about the IoTs in a short video produced by VOX (Voices from Oxford) focused on my edited book with Mark Graham, entitled Society and the Internet (OUP 2014). The interview is conducted by Prof Christine Borgman, Professor and Presidential Chair in Information Studies, UCLA. The interview is primarily about the edited book, with an example drawn from the Internet of Things. You can see the video at: http://www.voicesfromoxford.org/video/society-and-the-internet-of-things/423

 

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Deliver Us from Vacation Email Replies

This morning’s paper had yet another wonderful complaint by a spouse who has been plagued by a workaholic partner who cannot curtail his email connections with the office. This spouse said her holiday experience had been turned into a “take your family to work” week. OK. That’s funny and I understand. I actually knew a former top manager at an R&D laboratory in the UK who would (really) have his spouse reading and answering email while he drove the car, as described in this anonymous opinion piece in The Independent. It can go over the top.

However, I hope many of these annoyed families realize that they would not be on a beach or in the Alps were it not for email and being able to stay connected to the office. As I have said before, and others have documented in research, the Internet enables people to be where they want to be for face-to-face, inter-personal interaction. Work can go on despite the boss being away on holiday.

Well, not always, and not for most people.

August is almost over, but what a time of a particular type of spam email – the vacation auto-reply. It often goes something like: “Thank you for your email, but I am away relaxing on holiday. If you really want to contact me, email me when I am back.” To someone who is not on holiday, and very likely working hard on behalf of this holidaymaker, this is truly annoying. Personally, I would rather not get a reply, and assume I’ll hear when I hear, than be told that my colleague is having fun, and that I have been wasting my time trying to complete a task that will be stopped in its tracks because someone is on holiday and can’t reply, “Yes, go ahead”, or “No, let’s talk when I am back”. Easy.
I find any auto-reply to be annoying, but if you want advice from one who is regularly tortured by this spam, here are a few tips:

First, act disappointed that you cannot immediately reply. Apologize that you are traveling and do not have access to the Internet for a time, and will get back as soon as possible. You are important, and your message is important. The corollary, is that you should not suggest that you – our holidaymaker – are too important to be bothered by email from anyone, or that you really deserve a holiday, as if the bloke working while you are on holiday does not.

Secondly, don’t activate your vacation auto-rely 2 seconds after 5pm on the Friday of a long holiday weekend. If you really have to have a vacation auto-reply, maybe wait a respectable amount of time before you check out of the real world.

Finally, if you must leave a vacation email, use them to begin drafting your final vacation email for when you pass away. That will get you in the right frame of mind to tell people how you really wish you could respond, but you are so pleased they thought of you in any case.