COVID-19 and the Future of Higher Education

Time to Develop an Ambitious Research Agenda

Universities are in the process of telling faculty, students, parents, and the larger public about how they intend to respond to the pandemic of COVID-19.[1] Many decisions have been taken about how classes will be held in the coming academic year. In this context, educators are discussing how they expect all the various actors and stakeholders to respond to different strategies and what this means for the future of higher education. Is this crisis an opportunity for fast tracking the sector to more efficient and affordable approaches to education, if not a major shift to online learning, or are we witnessing an inevitable train wreck for the future of higher education? Alternatively, will most institutions choose to muddle through this pandemic before reverting to more conventional approaches. Simply search online for ‘COVID-19 and the future of higher education’ and you will find a large number of articles, interviews, and opinion pieces. 

via voices.com

I have retired from university teaching and administration. Nevertheless, after decades of teaching and working in higher education, and with a long-term interest and research in online learning and education (Dutton and Loader 2002), I have been concerned about the challenges of moving online[2] and have tried to track unfolding developments and reflect on what should be done.

In following this sector, I have been seriously impressed with the significant steps that have been taken by many universities.[3] Some moved their recent graduation ceremonies completely online albeit many of these institutions promise to invite students back for the real thing in the future. Some universities have chosen to move to online courses completely or to varying degrees in various scenarios of blended or hybrid approaches to delivering courses. And a number are offering more choices to students, such as to defer, take their courses online, offer hybrid (online and in class), or physically attend classes that respect social distancing. All these options are approached in the midst of uncertainty over whether fewer or more domestic and international students will want to attend classes, be able to take online courses, live on campus, and pay the going rates of tuition. 

My main concern in following these developments is the need to learn from this real-world, natural experiment occurring right before our eyes. At a recent online discussion of the transformation of the classroom in higher education, there was an observation of one panelist that captured a shared sense that very little systematic empirical research is being done to track and assess developments. If that is true, then an ambitious research agenda needs to be developed as soon as possible. 

There has already been reporting on early experiences with online education in the aftermath of face-to-face teaching of courses being discontinued at nearly all levels of education, immediately following the spread of COVID-19.[4] There are early predictions of likely financial and pedagogical implications. And many discussions within and across disciplines about how to teach online.[5] But more systematic empirical research on actual impacts needs to be undertaken. So, my major point is that this is the time to capture the lessons being learned by higher educational institutions over the coming year, initially by developing a strong research agenda.  

For a start, educators should be talking to those at innovative institutions of higher education. Even quite traditional universities, such as Oxford, have been doing online education, such as through their Department of Continuing Education.[6] They have over 90 online courses, and some of the first were philosophy courses, where I was surprised to learn that discussion forums worked exceptionally well. There are also online universities, for example, and universities that have been founded and have years of experience in remote or distance education, such as a set of open universities like the Open University of Catalonia(Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) and the first Open University which is based in the UK. Can we learn from them?

I had an opportunity to sit down with two current and former faculty members of the UK’s Open University, based in Milton Keynes.[7]  Established in 1969, the OU has been focused on teaching part-time, mature students, studying alongside adult commitments of work and family, not necessarily with traditional school educational backgrounds, who  cannot or choose not to attend traditional campus-based universities. They were able to share lessons learned over the years in an institution that was designed for remote learning, often using broadcasting and the mail for course materials, with a large number of part-time tutors supporting students in small groups, including marking and commenting on each individual’s course work. Now materials and tuition are largely delivered online, although most qualifications will include the option of a limited number of face-to-face sessions.  

They know the challenges of online and other remote teaching and learning, such as the difficulties of synchronous sessions when many are in the workplace or involved with child-care. They have learned and responded to the expectations of today’s students for multiple media in presentations, including not only text but pictures, case studies, videos, games, audio recordings, virtual laboratories and more, although varied by the course and appropriate to the discipline. There is no such thing as one form of online class, when how teachers approach a chemistry class will be very different from a math or from a philosophy course.

The OU has dealt for decades with issues of accessibility given the mode of teaching and learning, which campus-based universities would have to address if more of their teaching was done online. And the OU and other open universities have found it critical for teams rather than individuals to build courses, given the different skill sets required for the content and its delivery. Traditional campus-based courses are still delivered primarily by one faculty member, possibly with teaching assistants, rather than a team with multiple backgrounds.  

More importantly, given the range of approaches taken by over four thousand universities (degree-granting post-secondary institutions) in the USA alone, this coming academic year should provide an unparalleled opportunity to discover what works well across different kinds of courses and institutions. There will still be problems with such issues as self-selection, with universities making decisions on whether to go online or follow other models. However, this is a common problem of comparative research that should not prevent strong studies.

Hopefully, major research councils should be calling for grant research on the impact of changes underway in higher education. Surely this is being done, but I have not run across major empirical research projects in this area. Universities might be good at doing research, but very few institutions are good at critically researching themselves. They are in a competitive enterprise. That said, education departments at major universities around the world must see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to study the impact of major innovations in higher education. And there is a small set of academics with a focus on online and educational innovations that could step up to meet this need.  

In short, the conversation should quickly be shifting from how universities will respond to this crisis to the development of empirical research on what different universities have chosen to do, how these strategies were actually implemented, and with what impact on learning, education, and the larger institution. This is not a new set of questions for the field, but this is an unprecedented opportunity to gain systematic empirical evidence from field research and interviews with those at the leading-edge of (mass) remote teaching. It is not too late to be focusing on the development of an ambitious research agenda for education post COVID-19. I cannot think of a more important focus for researchers with experience and a focus on learning and education.    

Reference

Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Notes   

[1] A few examples are described in a recent article in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/presidents-panel-how-covid-19-will-change-higher-education-136931

[2] https://billdutton.me/2020/04/13/social-distancing-education/

[3] The steps taken by a few universities are described by an article in The Conversation of 2 July: https://theconversation.com/presidents-panel-how-covid-19-will-change-higher-education-136931

[4] Here is a thoughtful set of reflections from Scientific Americanhttps://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/online-learning-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[5] A colleague participated in a two-day conference on ‘teaching and learning mathematics online’ sponsored by three relevant learned societies for maths and stats. It included about 500 people who attended on a registered basis, with another 30 or 40 joining on particular session via YouTube. About 1000 are following it up in some formal way. See: http://talmo.uk/

[6] https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/public-courses

[7] My thanks to Lindsey Court, a Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in the OU’s School of Computing & Communications; and Derek Goldrei, an OU Honorary Associate, retired as Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, formerly Deputy Director of the Undergraduate Maths Programme, who is also an Emeritus Fellow of Mansfield College at Oxford University.

Self-Preservation of Your Work

Self-Preservation of Your Work

For decades I have been concerned over the fragility of information and whether ephemerality or the transitory nature of information and communication is just an inevitable feature of the digital age. I therefore frequently look back at a talk I gave on the Internet to a conference of historians held in Oxford in the early 2000s. Given that I was speaking to historians, at a time when I was the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute, one key theme of my talk concerned the major ways in which content on the Web was unlikely to be preserved. The Internet community did not have adequate plans and strategies for preserving the Internet, Web and related online content. I thought they would be engaged – if not frightened – by a shift of content to online media when it might mean losing much of our history with respect to data, documents, letters, and more. 

My audience seemed interested but unmoved. A historian from the audience chatted with me after the talk to explain that this is not new. Historians have always worked in piecing together history from letters found in a shoebox stored in an attic, tomb stones, and so on – not from systematically recorded archives, even though fragments of such records exist in many libraries, museums, and archives. This is nothing new to efforts aimed at writing or reconstructing history. 

This attitude frightened me even more. From my perspective, perhaps the historians had not seen anything yet. And I am continually reminded of this problem. Of course, there have been brilliant efforts to preserve online, digital content, such as the ‘Way Back Machine’, an initiative of the Internet Archive,[i] which indicates it has saved over 446 billion web pages. Yet the archive and its Way Back Machine have become a subscription service and have dropped out of the limelight they shared in the early days of the Web. The archive is also being limited by concerns over copyright that are leading them to reduce valuable services, such as their digital library.[ii]

But a recent and more personal experience brought all of this to the forefront of my thinking. I always print to save a hard copy of anything of significance (to me) that I write. That may seem quaint, but time and again, it has saved me from losing work that was stored on out of date media, such as floppy discs, or failing journals. I recently wanted to share a copy of a piece I did for a journal of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), written in 1994, when I was director of an ESRC programme. This time my system failed me and I could not find it in my files. 

This was a short piece that the ESRC published in one of its journals called Social Sciences. Being a social scientist, my article focused on the problematic mindset of social scientists regarding outreach (Dutton 1994). Too often, I argued, a (social) scientist thought they were through with outreach once they published an article. The way I put it was that many social scientists believed in sort of a ‘trickle-down’ theory of outreach. Once their work was published, the findings and their implications will eventually trickle down to those who might benefit from their insights.

Today, all disciplines of the sciences are far more focused on outreach and the impact of research. Many research assessment exercises require evidence of the impact of research as a basis for assessment. And individual academics, research units, departments and universities are becoming almost too focused on getting the word out to the world about their research and related achievements. Outreach has become a major aspect of contemporary academic and not-for-profit research enterprises. There is even an Association for Academic Outreach.[iii] One only needs to reflect on the innovative and competitive race to a vaccine for COVID-19, where at least 75 candidate vaccines are in preclinical or clinical evaluation[iv], to see how robust and important outreach has become. Nevertheless, outreach does not necessarily translate into preservation of academic work.

So – lo and behold – I could not find a copy of my piece on ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’. I recall seeing it in my files, but given moves back and forth across the Atlantic, it had vanished without a trace. I searched online for it, and found my books and articles that referenced it, but no copy of the article. I tried the Way Back Machine, but it was not on the Web, as the journal Social Sciences in those days did not put its publication online. I wrote the ESRC, as they might have an archive of their journal. They kindly replied that they not only did not have a copy of the article (from that far back), but, more surprisingly, they did not even have a copy of Social Sciences in their archives. So, 1994 is such ancient history that even revered institutions like the ESRC do not keep copies of their publications. 

Well, this little personal experience reminded me of my practice of keeping copies and reinforced the obvious conclusion that I need to preserve my own work, as I had tried to do, and do a more consistent job of it in the process! The toppling of real, analogue statues across the world selfishly reminded me of the need to preserve my own far less significant – if not insignificant – historical record and not to count on anyone else doing this for me. 

So, preserve your own work and don’t rely on the Internet, Web, big data, or any other person to save your work. Take it from C. Wright Mills (1952), any academic should devote considerable time to their files. While Mills argued that maintaining one’s files was a central aspect of ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, even he did not focus on their preservation.

That said, if anyone has a copy of ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’, name your price. 😉

Reference

Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.

Wright Mills, C. (1980), ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952)’, Society, Jan/Feb: 63-70.https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF02700062.pdf


[i] http://web.archive.org

[ii] https://www.inputmag.com/culture/internet-archive-kills-its-free-digital-library-over-copyright-concerns

[iii] https://www.afao.ac.uk

[iv] https://www.who.int/blueprint/priority-diseases/key-action/novel-coronavirus-landscape-ncov.pdf?ua=

To Be Virtual or Not to Be: That is Not the Question

Today’s newspapers have wonderfully conflicting stories. One story is about Ministers of Parliament (MPs) in the UK being angry over their ‘virtual parliament’ coming to an end.* The other story is the opposite, about the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, facing criticism from his Cabinet because they are continuing to meet via online video conferencing rather than getting together for face-to-face cabinet meetings.** These are fascinating debates to follow, especially in the added context of US debates over the US Supreme Court, and Congress, particularly some committees, meeting online and in hybrid forms. They are complex, multi-layered debates that will have consequences not only for judicial and legislative processes but also their outcomes. And we all have opinions about it. 

Photo from FT article by George Parker

Before mentioning the role of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to make one simple point. It is generally supported from decades of research on electronic meetings focused on the costs and benefits of meeting via such options as text-only online, voice-only (phone calls or conferencing), video conferencing, or face-to-face. Obviously, if an information task involves only the transfer of information, then simply using text-based online media, like an email, is the most efficient approach and may have no consequence on the outcome. However, if the task involves negotiation, bargaining, or other interpersonal judgements, then it would be better to use media with more ‘social presence’.*** Face-to-face, in-person meetings have the highest level of social presence, other things equal, followed by video conferencing, followed by only text-based telecommunications. Arguably, any transfer of information is in some part a negotiation, such as ‘please listen’, and some in person meetings, such as a teacher speaking in a large lecture hall can have little social presence. That said, some information tasks are relatively more focused on negotiation, such as arriving at a group decision or judgement. If you are simply giving or receiving information, it is more efficient to use online media. If negotiating or making a judgement, particularly as a group, it is better to meet face to face. 

However, this last call depends on your status in the group. If you are the leader or most influential in the group, it is better (for you) to meet face-to-face, as this will enable you to best assert your authority. If you are less influential in the group meeting, it might well be better for you to meet online, as text- or voice-only such as a phone call can have a leveling effect, making it more difficult for those at a higher status to dominate the discussion. The choice of medium is complicated as it could have redistributive versus pareto-optimal implications. Whatever you decide, some might be better off and others worse off. 

With these issues in mind, the best resolution I’ve found came out of a study of that organizations that concluded it was geography that still mattered the most.**** It was most efficient to be where you need to be for face-to-face communication. For example, back office operations at a bank do not need to be in a central city because it is only important to enable those in the back office to communicate well with one another. They can be located outside of a high-rent district in the city to a more remote back office. In contrast, the top management of a bank would need to have good communication with executives at different businesses, law firms, accounting firms, and so forth, creating an argument for them to be located in the city – where face to face communication will be enabled with other executives. You should try to locate where you most need to have face-to-face communication and rely more on online media for remote communication for less critical information and communication tasks. 

Therefore, the key question is not whether to use online or face-to-face communication, but where you should be in order to facilitate face-to-face communication with the most critical people you are meeting with. Here is where the problems arise for politicians, legislators, and (possibly) judges. Should they be closer to their constituents, their colleagues, the leaders of their party, the defendant, the media, or their staff. 

The coronavirus pandemic simplified this calculus, as they were required to stay at home and use online media. As the lock downs ease, the experience with working online might lead some to wish to remain online, but the interests of most politicians, including parliamentarians and members of congress will be to be many places at once in order to work with many different kinds of actors critical to their role in politics and government. In this situation, online media will help people to be where they most need to be at any given time to meet face-to-face with the most critical groups. 

Sounds simple, but it is not. Ideally, this understanding should lead legislatures and parliaments and executives to enable their colleagues to have options. Tell them: “Be where you should to have the most important conversations you can have today – to be present in the most critical meetings.” Use online media to follow, contribute to, and otherwise participate in activities that are less critical. You might well need to be left alone to write, of example. In some respects, these issues might lie in part behind moves to ‘hybrid’ virtual legislatures, and ‘hybrid’ online teaching options, so that some activities can be moved online, and some remain face-to-face. But choices need to be more fine-grained and flexible than most hybrid models appear to be. 

I’ve glossed over many issues but hope to have moved some people away from wondering which is better: virtual or real face-to-face communication. That is not the right question. 

References

*Sebastian Payne, (2020), ‘Anger among MPs over end of ‘virtual parliament’’, Financial Times, Wednesday 3 June: 2. 

**George Parker, (2020), ‘Unrest as Johnson’s ‘Potemkin cabinet no longer takes decisions’’, Financial Times, 3 June: 

*** Social presence, and its relationship to different communication media, emerged from some terrific experiments conducted and reported by Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976), The Social Psychology of Telecommunications (London: John Wiley and Sons). 

****Goddard, J., and Richardson, R., (1996), ‘Why Geography Will Still Matter: What Jobs Go Where?’, pp. 197-214 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

Publication of A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

A Research Agenda for Digital Politics 

The publication of my most recent edited book, A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, is available in hardback and electronic forms at: https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/a-research-agenda-for-digital-politics-9781789903089.html From this site you can look inside the book to review the preface, list of contributors, the table of contents, and my introduction, which includes an outline of the book. In addition, the first chapter by Professor Andrew Chadwick, entitled ‘Four Challenges for the Future of Digital Politics Research’, is free to read on the digital platform Elgaronline, where you will also find the books’ DOI: https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781789903089/9781789903089.xml

Finally, a short leaflet is available on the site, with comments on the book from Professors W. Lance Bennett, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Laura DeNardis. I was not aware of these comments, with one exception, until today – so I am truly grateful to such stellar figures in the field for contributing their views on this volume.  

Digital politics has been a burgeoning field for years, but with the approach of elections in the US and around the world in the context of a pandemic, Brexit, and breaking cold wars, it could not be more pertinent than today. If you are considering texts for your (online) courses in political communication, media and politics, Internet studies, or digital politics, do take a look at the range and quality of perspectives offered by the contributors to this new book. Provide yourself and your students with valuable insights on issues framed for high quality research. 

List of Contributors:

Nick Anstead, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jay G. Blumler, University of Leeds and University of Maryland; Andrew Chadwick, Loughborough University; Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds; Alexi Drew, King’s College London and Charles University, Prague; Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa; Laleah Fernandez, Michigan State University; Heather Ford, University of Technology Sydney; M. I. Franklin, Goldsmiths, University of London; Paolo Gerbaudo, King’s College London; Dave Karpf, George Washington University;  Leah Lievrouw, University of California, Los Angeles; Wan-Ying Lin, City University of Hong Kong; Florian Martin-Bariteau, University of Ottawa; Declan McDowell-Naylor, Cardiff University; Giles Moss, University of Leeds; Ben O’Loughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London; Patrícia Rossini, University of Liverpool; Volker Schneider, University of Konstanz; Lone Sorensen, University of Huddersfield; Scott Wright, University of Melbourne; Xinzhi Zhang, Hong Kong Baptist University. 

How People Look for Information about Politics

The following lists papers and work in progress flowing from our research, which began at MSU, and was funded by Google Inc., on how people get access to information about politics. It was launched when I was director of the Quello Center at Michigan State University, but continues with me and colleagues at Quello and other universities in the US, UK and Canada. Funding covered the cost of the surveys – online surveys of 14000 Internet users in seven nations, but yielded a broad set of outputs. Your comments, criticisms, are welcomed. It was called the Quello Search Project.

Quello Search Project Papers

6 May 2020

Opinion and Outreach Papers to Wider Audiences

Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped’, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

This post was republished on a variety of platforms, including Salon, Inforrm.org, mediablasfactcheck, BillDutton.me, Observer.com, Quello.msu.com, USAToday.com, Techniamerica, pubexec

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Bubblebusters: Countering Fake News, Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers, NESTA.org.uk, 15 June. 

This post was republished on the Nesta site and readie.eu. Bill plans to update and repost this blog on his own site.  

Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2018), The Myth of the Echo Chamber, The Conversation, March: https://theconversation.com/the-myth-of-the-echo-chamber-92544

Presentations of the Project Report

The project report has been presented at a wide variety of venues. A blog about Bill’s presentations is available here: http://quello.msu.edu/the-director-presents-in-europe-on-our-quello-search-project/Presentations include:

  • Summaries of our report/project were presented to academic, industry and policy communities in Britain (London, Oxford); Germany (Hamburg, Berlin, Munich); Italy (Rome); Belgium (Brussels); Spain (Madrid); China (Beijing); and the US (Arlington, Boston), and most recently in Mexico (Mexico City).
  • An overview of our Report was part of a three-hour workshop on research around echo chambers, filter bubbles and social media organized for a preconference workshop for the Social Media and Society Conference, Toronto, Canada https://socialmediaandsociety.org/ July 28-30, 2017. It included Bill, Elizabeth, and Craig.  

Papers Completed or in Progress

The following is a list of papers that further develop and deepen particular themes and issues of our project report. They have been completed or are in progress, categorized here by the indicative list of paper topics promised by the team: 

  1. Overview: A critical overview of the project findings for a policy journal, such as the Internet Policy Review, or Information Communication and Society

Dutton, W. H., Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., Dubois, E., and Fernandez, L. (2019), ‘The Internet and Access to Information About Politics: Searching Through Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation’, pp. 228-247 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Earlier version: Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Blank, G., and Dubois, E. (2017), ‘Search and Politics: A Cross-National Survey’, paper presented at the TPRC #45 held at George Mason University in Arlington Virginia, September 7-9, 2017.

Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2018). ‘The echo chamber is overstated: the moderating effect of political interest and diverse media’. Information, Communication & Society, 21(5), 729-745. 

Dutton, W. H. (2018), ‘Networked Publics: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Big Policy Issues’, Internet Policy Review, 15 May: https://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/networked-publics-multi-disciplinary-perspectives-big-policy-issues   

  • Vulnerables: Work identifying the Internet users most vulnerable to fake news and echo chambers. This paper would build on the findings to suggest interventions, such as around digital media literacy to address these risks.

Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018/19), ‘How Susceptible Are Internet Users?’, InterMEDIA, December/January 2018/19 46(4): 36-40. 

Earlier version: Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Nudging the Vulnerable’, presentation at the International Communication Association meeting in Prague, Czech Republic on 24 May 2018.

Reisdorf, B. presented work on ‘Skills, Usage Types and political opinion formation’, an invited talk at Harvard Kennedy School, Oct 19, 2017 [Bibi (presenting) work with Grant]

Blank, G., and Reisdorf, B. (2018), ‘Internet Activity, Skills, and Political Opinion Formation: A New Public Sphere?’, presentation at the International Communication Association meeting in Prague, Czech Republic on 24 May 2018.

  • Trust: A study focused on trust in different sources of information about politics and policy for a political communication journal, such as the International Journal of Communication.

Cotter, K.  & Reisdorf, B.C. (2020). Algorithmic knowledge gaps: Education and experience as co-determinants. International Journal of Communication, 14(1). Online First.

Dubois, E., Minaeian, S., Paquet-Labelle, A. and Beaudry, S. (2020), Who to Trust on Social Media: How Opinion Leaders and Seekers Avoid Disinformation and Echo Chambers, Social Media + Society, April-June: 1-13. 

Reisdorf, B.C. & Blank, G. (forthcoming). Algorithmic Literacy and Platform Trust, pp. forthcoming in Hargittai, E. (Ed.). Handbook of Digital Inequality. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Previously presented: Reisdorf, B.C. & Blank, G. (2018), ‘Algorithmic literacy and platform trust’, paper to be presented at the 2018 American Sociological Association annual meeting, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 11 August.

  • Cross-national Comparison: A cross-national comparative analysis of search, seeking to explain cross-national differences, for an Internet and society journal, such as Information, Communication and Society (iCS), or New Media and Society

Blank, G., Dubois, E., Dutton, W.H., Fernandez, L., and Reisdorf, B.C. presented a panel entitled ‘Personalization, Politics, and Policy: Cross-National Perspectives’ at ICA Conference 2018 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Dubois, E. (forthcoming), ‘Spiral of Silence/Two Step Flow: How Social Support/Pressure and Political Opinion’, under preparation for a journal.

  • Search: A study of the role of search in our evolving media ecology. One of the unique strengths of this project is that it contextualized search in the environment of the entire range of media. The dataset asks respondents about activity on six offline and seven online media, including search, plus nine social media. What is the role of search in this broad ecology of online and offline media? Are people who have complex media habits less likely to fall into echo chambers? 

Robertson, C. (2017), ‘Are all search results created equal? An exploration of filter bubbles and source diversity in Google search results’, presented at a symposium entitled Journalism and the Search for Truth in an Age of Social Media at Boston University, April 23-25.

Blank, G. (2017), ‘Search and politics: The uses and impacts of search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United States’. Presentation at the Google display at the Almadalen conference in Sweden on 3 July.

Blank, G. and Dubois, E. (2017), ‘Echo chambers and media engagement with politics’, presentation at the Social Informatics 2017 conference in Oxford on 13 September.

Blank, G. and Dubois, E. (2018), ‘Echo Chambers and the Impact of Media Diversity: Political Opinion Formation and Government Policy’, paper presented at the General Online Research Conference, Düsseldorf, Germany on 1 March.

Blank, G., and Dubois, E. (2018), ‘Is the echo chamber overstated? Findings from seven countries’, presentation at the Düsseldorf University, Institute for Internet and Democracy Conference, Düsseldorf, Germany on 5 July. 

  • Populism: An analysis of the role of search and the Internet in populist attitudes. How is populism related to search? Is the Internet and search supporting the rise of individuals with more confidence in their knowledge of policy, and supportive of more popular control? Are populists more likely to be in an echo chamber than those less in line with populist viewpoints?

Dutton, W. H. and Robertson, C. T. (forthcoming), ‘The Role of Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers in the Rise of Populism: Disentangling Polarization and Civic Empowerment in the Digital Age’ in Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord (eds), The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. New York: Routledge, pp. forthcoming.

  • Fact Checking: Checking Information via Search: Who, When, Why? Between 41 percent (UK) and 57 percent (Italy) of respondents say they check information using search “often” or “very often”. Who are those who double-check sources?

Robertson, C.T. (under review). Who checks? Identifying predictors of online verification behaviors in the United States and Europe.

  • Democracy: An analysis of democratic digital inequalities that would examine how education and motivation are related to searching for and sharing political news. Is there a gap in the way that people from different educational backgrounds search for and share political news, and if so, does this affect how they shape their political opinions?

Dutton, W. H. (2020 forthcoming) (ed), Digital Politics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Dutton, W. H. (In Progress), The Fifth Estate: The Political Dynamics of Empowering Networked Individuals. Book under contract with OUP, New York: Oxford University Press, with 1-2 chapters on QSP. 

Blank, G. (2018), ‘Democracy and Technology’, Grant will spoke at the Google display at the SuomiAreena conference on 16 July in Pori, Finland.

Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., and Dutton, W. H. (2019), ‘Internet Cultures and Digital Inequalities’, pp. 80-95 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Previously presented: Blank, G., Reisdorf, B., and Dutton, W. H. (2018), ‘Internet Cultures and Digital Inequalities’, presentation at the Digital Inclusion Policy and Research Conference, London, 21-22 June.

Downing of Ukrainian Flight #PS752 on 8 January 2020: An Information Disaster?

In 1994, I helped organize a forum for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) on what we called ‘ICT disasters’. We described and compared three cases, including the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes, a US warship patrolling the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on the plane. It was incorrectly identified as an Iranian F-14 fighter descending towards the ship, when in fact it was a civilian flight that was ascending. We concluded it was an information disaster in that available information was not correctly communicated, interpreted and acted on in time to prevent this accident and developed explanations for how this was able to occur. 

Image from Business Insider

I dare not suggest whether or not the downing of Ukrainian Flight #PS752 is comparable to the disaster of Iran Flight 655 or other civilian flight disasters. The dynamics leading to these two events are undoubtedly very different indeed. However, I do believe this latest disaster in Iran is a case that is worthy of study in ways that will go well beyond assigning blame to particular nations or actors. 

There is a need to understand the social, organizational, and technological dynamics of these disasters as a means for improving policy and practice in the specific areas in which they are embedded, but also to learn lessons that could be informative for areas far removed from airline safety and defense. For example, our case study of Iran Flight 655 was studied along with two other case studies in entirely different areas, one involving London ambulance dispatching, and another the London Stock Exchange. The common denominator was the extreme circumstances that were involved in each incident that led them to be perceived as disasters. 

By studying extreme cases of information disasters, it might be possible to provide new insights and lessons that are applicable to more routine information failures that occur in organizations and society. Such disasters might help shape safer digital socio-technical outcomes. 

If you are interested, let me suggest these readings on the Flight 655 disaster case study and how such cases can be explored for broader lessons, include:

Rochlin, G. I (1991), ‘Iran Flight 655 and the USS Vincennes: Complex, Large-Scale Military Systems and the Failure of Control’, pp. 99-125 in La Porte, T. (ed.), Social Responses to Large Technical Systems (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers). 

Dutton, W. H., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Peltu, M. (1995), Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunications Disasters. Policy Research Paper No. 33 (Uxbridge: PICT, Brunel University). 

Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), Computer Power and Human Limits, pp. 177-95 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies  Visions and Realities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Society and the Internet

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the Internet and related social media and digital technologies to the forefront of societies across the globe. Whether in supporting social distancing, working at home, or online courses, people are increasingly dependent on online media for everyday life and work. If you are teaching courses on the social aspects of the Internet, social media, and life or work in the digital age, you might want to consider a reader that covers many of the key technical and social issues.

Please take a look at the contents of the 2nd Edition of Society and the Internet (OUP 2019), which is available in paperback and electronic editions. Information about the book is available online at: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/society-and-the-internet-9780198843498?cc=gb&lang=en& 

Whether you are considering readings for your Fall/Autumn courses, or simply have an interest in the many social issues surrounding digital media, you may find this book of value. From Manuel Castells’ Foreword to Vint Cerf’s concluding chapter, you find a diverse mix of contributions that show how students and faculty can study the social shaping and societal implications of digital media. 

In addition to Manuel Castells and Vint Cerf along with the editors, our contributors include: Maria Bada, Grant Blank, Samantha Bradshaw, David Bray, Antonio A. Casilli, Sadie Creese, Matthew David, Laura DeNardis, Martin Dittus, Elizabeth Dubois, Laleah Fernandez, Sandra González-Bailón, Scott Hale, Eszter Hargittai, Philip N. Howard, Peter John, Silvia Majó Vázquez, Helen Margetts, Marina Micheli, Christopher Millard, Lisa Nakamura, Victoria Nash, Gina Neff, Eli Noam, Sanna Ojanperä, Julian Posada, Anabel Quan-Hasse, Jack Linchuan, Lee Raine, Bianca Reisdorf, Ralph Schroeder, Limor Shifman, Ruth Shillair, Greg Taylor, Hua Wang, Barry Wellman, and Renwen Zhang. Together, these authors offer one of the most useful and engaging collections on the social aspects of the Internet and related digital media available for teaching.

Thanks for your own work in this field, at an incredible period of time for Internet and new media studies of communication and technology.

Learning from Disasters: 30 Years After the USS Vincennes

Thirty years ago, on 3 July 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an ascending domestic airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, mistaking it for a military aircraft descending toward the aircraft carrier group. My colleagues and I group this information disaster with a number of others with the hope of learning lessons from such incidents. Time has passed since our 1995 paper and the forum it was based on, but I call your attention to this again as it illustrates the need to study and learn from mistakes. Our analysis of these information disasters is available online is entitled Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunication Disasters, and is available here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3103433 

A revised and published version of this paper is available: Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits,’ in Dutton. W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 177-195.

ICA Award for Applied Research Went to …

Since 1992, Peter Clarke, my former dean at USC, and Susan Evans, a Research Scientist at the Annenberg School for Communication, have been conducting a systematic program of applied research to bring massive quantities of healthy food onto the plates of hungry and malnourished adults and children. Their work is evidence-based throughout, and is exemplary of the potential for applied research in communication to address a pressing human need, promoting food practices that build physical health and wellbeing, and that are the bedrock of strong communities.

Their team had a clear and strong case for the applied research award. Before this occasion, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture named their project a “Hero of Food Recovery”, and the UPS Foundation recognized Clarke and Evans with its Distinguished Services Award for their accomplishments. So it is timely and wonderful for the ICA to acknowledge their research through its Applied Research Award for 2018. Their decades of focused collaboration have really raised the bar for this award. 

Below is a photo of Peter and Susan at ICA with a winner of the best paper award, and former Annenberg student, Professor Arvind Singhal, the Samuel Shirley and Edna Holt Marston Endowed Professor and Director of the Social Justice Initiative in the Department of Communication, University of Texas – El Paso. And another photo tied to their research on the use of a mobile app that helps people receiving vegetables to find good healthy recipes. Here is a link to a 15-minute demonstration of the app’s features. My own research on the use of the Internet in Detroit illuminated the degree of mobile dependence in distressed urban areas, which makes this innovation particularly relevant. This app is available in both Android and iOS platforms, and has been subjected to a randomized controlled field trial among nearly 300 families who patronize 15 pantries.

Congratulations!

 

Source: news.usc.edu

The 21st Century Science Challenge: Communication with the Public

On my last trip to China, I was meeting with a former social science colleague at Tsinghua University, Professor JIN Jianbin, who received a new research grant to study public perspectives on science, such as around research on genetically modified crops. Our conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) quickly touched on a variety of other issues, such as the public’s acceptance of research on climate change, on which sizeable proportions of the public in China, the US and other nations often dismiss, if not distrust, scientific opinion.

IMG_2381
Bill Dutton and JIN Jianbin at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, 17 Sept 2017

Of course, some level of public distrust of scientific authorities is not new. I recall some famous work by political scientists in the US who studied the politics of conspiracy theories around the fluoridation of water that was prominent across American communities since the 1950s, but which – surprisingly – carries on to this day. So while it is not new, distrust of the political motivations behind scientific opinion is arguably growing.

Some indicators have suggested that diffuse public support for scientific institutions is not declining.[1] However, there is some limited and more recent evidence that universities and academics are being perceived as more partisan.[2] And anecdotally, science is increasingly questioned as biased by researchers who are claimed to be in the pockets of the sponsors of their research, illustrated by controversies over pharmaceutical research.

Such assaults on the integrity of science have led universities and research institutions to place a higher priority on the prevention and detection of conflicts of interest rising in the conduct of research. Finally, symptoms of this growing distrust seem evident in the divisions over a rising number of issues, with GMOs, climate change, vaccinations, and evolution, being among the more prominent. Perhaps the controversies surrounding science simply reflect the many issues that have broad public implications, such as for the digital economy or public health, while issues such as the moon landing were more removed from immediate public impact on the redistribution of resources.

The bad news is that these controversies are likely to slow progress, such as on efforts to reduce man made climate change. In some cases these controversies are dangerous, such as in leading parents not to vaccinate their school children.

However, there might be some positive outcomes here, if not good news. One positive outcome of this developing problem might be that scientists will place a greater priority on better explaining their work to a wider public. Already, the study of science communication is a burgeoning field around the world, illustrated by new research being launched by my colleague JIN Jianbin, Professor of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing. And an increasing number of research councils and foundations stress the importance of public outreach.

Of course, scientists explain their research findings and their implications as a matter of practice. Not to be forgotten or dismissed is perhaps the most effective albeit long-term form of science communication, which is teaching in colleges and universities. Yet there are questions about whether top scientists, whatever their field, are as closely involved in teaching as they could be. For example, my former university, the University of Southern California, placed a priority on putting top senior scholars into the entry level undergraduate courses, which I thought was brilliant, but which is exceptional.

But arguably, most communication about scientific issues remains focused on peer-to-peer rather than public facing communication. Peer-to-peer communication is conducted   through journal publications and academic conferences and presentations. And when public facing, it is often limited to top-down or what I have called ‘trickle-down’ science, with scientists expecting their publications to be read and interpreted by others, and not themselves – the primary researchers.[3]

However, and here I could be wrong, it seems that the worse possible development might be what I see as a trend toward scientific persuasion, often based on appeals to authority and scientific consensus or by lobbying, such as through petitions, rather than by effective communication of research. Any scientist is quick to dismiss or place less credibility in appeals to authority. Why should the public be different? Where is the evidence? And once scientists move into the role of a lobbyist, petitioner, or activist, they diminish their credibility as scientists or researchers. Surely this kind of context collapse, when a scientist becomes political, or a doctor runs for a political office, invites the public to view scientists and academics as partisan political actors rather than scientific actors, and see them in ways that parallel other political actors and lobbyists.

How can scientists explain their work to a larger public? First, they need to recognize the need and value of effectively communicating their work to a broader public. This aim is rising across academia, such as in research councils insisting on research including components on outreach, and academic quality being judged increasingly by its impact. Unfortunately, this can sometimes drift into a tick box exercise in budgeting for conferences and seminars involving business and industry and the government, while serious efforts to communicate to the general public with an interest in the topic needs to be tackled directly. Academics need to guard against this tick box mentality.

Another concern is that this need for public outreach might simply lead to a greater focus on media coverage, getting the press to pick up stories on a scientist’s research. There is nothing wrong with this, universities love such coverage, and it can be helpful, but news coverage is generally overly simplistic, too often misleading, and potentially adding to the problems confronting good scientific communication. Researchers need to hold journalists and the media more accountable, and address inaccuracies or overly simplified messages in the press, cable news shows, and mass media.

Another, and a possibly more effective and more recently practical approach, is to communicate directly to the public. Join the conversation. Write reports on your research findings that are understandable to those in the educated public that might be seriously interested in your work now or in the future. You can reach opinion leaders in your areas of research, and thereby foster effective two-step flows of communication to the general public. Don’t worry about a mass audience, but aim to reach a targeted audience of those with a serious interest in your topic. When they search online for information about your topic, make sure that accessible presentations of your research will be found.

Unfortunately, too many academics are taught not to join the conversation, and to avoid blogging or writing for a general audience. Instead, they are taught to focus more than ever on only reaching the top peer reviewed journals in their field and being read and cited by their peers. As noted above, this too often leads to a weak form of trickle down science, which is not in the long-term interest of the scientific enterprise.

We should question this conventional wisdom in academia. Personally, I don’t believe there is a necessary risk to scientific publishing by also trying to communicate to a more general audience. That is what teachers do, and when researchers try to teach and communicate with their students, they can find problems with their arguments, and ways to improve how they convey their ideas.

So – scientists – offer up your best ideas to the public, not as your peers, but as smart and educated individuals who do not know about your work – even why it is relevant. Some of my most meaningful experiences with communication about my research have been exactly when I – focused on Internet studies – sat next to a physicist or mathematician over a meal who asked me about my research and vice versa. What am I working on? Why is it important? If we can do this over lunch or dinner, we can do it for a larger public online.

Perhaps this is more difficult than it sounds, but we need to accept the challenge. Arguably, the scientific challenge of the 21st century is effective communication to the larger public.

References

[1] See: https://www.nap.edu/read/21798/chapter/4#12

[2] See: https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/annabel-scott/pew-poll-majority-republicans-think-colleges-have-negative-impact-us

[3] Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.