In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, with so many organizations and activities moving online, I’ve seen a remarkable push to ‘professionalize’ [for want of a better word] everything online. You might think that is a good thing, but to me, it is undermining, if not destroying, the free and open culture of the Internet. For example, I can sit down and draft a blog and post it in seconds without fear with the hope that a few people besides myself might enjoy it. It’s fun to share ideas and issues.
Increasingly I hear colleagues talking about doing an event online in a more ‘professional’ way. They want high production value, even though they are shooting a talk, not a major motion picture, or an interview for a major news channel. They need all the organisational trappings, corporate logos, and branding down to the right font.
Of course, I whine, protest, and argue that it is okay to relax a bit online – it can be more ‘Internety’ and that is fine – that is what is special about the Internet and social media. But that does not translate well for those trying to move their professional organizations, meetings, marketing, outreach, courses, and more onto the Internet – and they are bulldozing the culture of the Internet as they do.
I also see the consequences of this transition in my inbox. Email is increasingly dominated by messages from institutions, organizations, campaigns, candidates, and news organizations dressed in all their corporate style guides. Instead of a serious letter sent by snail mail on corporate letterhead, I get more emails with the image of a serious letter on corporate letterhead attached. It is like telemarketing has moved onto the Internet big time, giving me so much to delete before reading.
This invasion of professionalism into all the nooks and crannies of the Internet brings to mind the late John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence. Every year I gain more respect for his vision in his 1996 ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, which you can read here: https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence If he were alive today, he would be so disappointed.
I’ve sat in on a couple of these sessions and have found them uplifting. You can see librarians thinking creatively about how to continue providing the world access to public information, despite these closures. For many, the Internet has been the answer. The focus has been on extending Wifi access to their local communities, whether by leaving it on (many libraries turned their Wifi off when the building was not open, just as they would turn off the lights) so that people could get access in parking lot hot spots or elsewhere outside the building, or extending access in other ways, such as through line of sight microwave towers (one example was on a grain storage bin) to local schools and institutions.
There is little or no handwringing over the closures. Instead, the closures seem to have fostered creative discussions among a community of librarians. They view access to public information as an essential service and emphasize among themselves that they are in a people or information service rather than a book business.
Of course, another service that can be provided online is free access to information. I was impressed and surprised when I saw some of the oldest public libraries in Britain that they were called Free Public Libraries. Chethams is one of the oldest. The early libraries were private, in households, not open free to the public. So the key function of libraries has long been to provide free access to information, just as university libraries enable their students to gain free access to proprietary journals and books. This is still a mission, and an increasingly important mission, as more information is being walled off behind paywalls.
So how can they create a place that has the sense of belonging of a traditional library, and access to public information, when the building is closed. By hearing from librarians around the world, who are developing responses to this existential crisis of the library, I am sure they will come up with a range of best practices. There will not be any single model, given the many different contexts of libraries, but there will be many for particular communities to build upon. In one session, Nicole Umayam presented on state efforts in Arizona and Dr Nkem Osigwe spoke on developments in a number of African libraries.
I grew up wandering through libraries much like I surf through the Internet today, but it will be hard if not impossible for the Internet or conferencing to replicate the feeling of being in a library. I still get goosebumps in many libraries, any yet I spend so much more time online than looking for information in any building. Just like access to the Internet is causing (or should cause) teachers to rethink what they do in the classroom, maybe it will lead librarians to think more about what they use their buildings for, when they do reopen. What can we not do as well online as in a local public library? Surely it is something about building a stronger sense of community.
Social Distancing Education: Questions Abound over Online Courses
One major response to social distancing in light of the Coronavirus has been a rapid move of schools and universities to online education. To many, this is a stopgap measure that will end when guidance on social distancing ends. To others, this was an innovation long waiting to happen that should alter the future of education at many levels – moving online teaching from the periphery to the core of educational institutions.
I can understand why so many are convinced this change will be successful. Nearly all faculty and students use the Internet and related digital media in their everyday life and work, so it is not as major of a transition as it would have been in earlier times. Also, informal learning – outside formal institutions – has worked well online, with many routinely seeking advice or instructions on YouTube and other platforms. Moreover, the tools exist in the form of online platforms for course delivery. Many training courses and some university courses are already delivered online and many institutions are using these platforms today. Do they simply need to be scaled up to accommodate more students? Has it taken this pandemic to push conservative institutions and faculty into the obviously more efficient future of education?
However, as one of many who has followed the development of online and distance education for decades, I worry that many of my colleagues are not aware of the serious difficulties that lie ahead.
Since 1974, I had been studying and writing about computer-mediated communication and began studying innovations in online education with the rise of the Internet. In the midst of the dotcom bubble, 2000-2001, I was the faculty senate president at a major US university and worked with the administration to take our university into the future of higher education. I worked with colleagues to organize a forum on online education and edited collection, entitled Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning (2002).* It was dedicated to Michael Young, the founder of the Open University. I was very optimistic at that time, but even by the time this book was published, the problems were becoming more apparent.
Here are some of the issues to consider:
The rapid transition in response to the pandemic is pushing many educators and students into the use of tools and techniques that they did not choose and have not been trained to use. For instance, you can already see some of the teething problems with the problem of zoom-bombing.
The tools and platforms do indeed exist but they are not up to speed with the platforms used by most Internet users. They are relatively slow and clunky and more limited, such as with the use of video, or accessing the wider Internet, depending on the particular platform.
We don’t really know how to do online education in a way that is successful in motivating and holding students. The dropout rate of students in many online courses is unacceptably high. This is not to say that individual faculty think they know how to teach online – many sincerely believe they do. But the track-record of online courses has not seen the successful patterns of many other online innovations, such as shopping. To the contrary, many who have taught online have realized that it is far more difficult to teach online and even then the outcomes are not as satisfying to teachers or students.
So much of education is not simply the transfer of information. We can transfer information very well online, and online materials are being substituted for books and articles, but there are other processes that might be even more significant. These include social comparison with other students, learning from peers, and the social presence of the teacher, who can recognise an exceptional or a failing student and help them earlier and more effectively.
We really don’t have a business model or let’s say the business model of traditional educational institutions does not accommodate online education. Online courses need teams to deliver them well, when traditional teaching can be handled well by individuals. Already you are seeing students asking for reductions in their tuition payments. There will be some students who will pay whatever it costs to get a degree from a prestigious institution, but then we are moving into the territory of selling credentials, rather than teaching.
Today, possibly because of the lessons learned over the past two decades, I am more skeptical than in the dotcom bubble, despite advances in technology. I expect that the transition will be far more difficult in the short run than many institutions expect, and very problematic indeed to sustain in the longer run.
One possibility is that serious innovation might result from tens of thousands of teachers experimenting with online teaching. We should work hard to capture best practice, what works, and what might even begin to diffuse among teachers locally or globally. If there is a breakthrough in the techniques, equipment, or practices of online education, let’s capture it.
That said, I have also written about what I called ‘innovation amnesia’, which referred to the way everyone tends to forget the history of information and communication technologies, and therefore, many try to reinvent the same innovations time and again. This is good in that as time changes, the context might be more favorable and supportive to innovations that failed in the past. Early innovations in video communication were in 1974, with PicturePhone!
With respect to online learning, we shall see. I hope I am as wrong today, as I was 20 years ago.
*Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.
**Dutton, W. H. (1995), ‘Driving into the Future of Communications? Check the Rear View Mirror,’ in Emmott, S. (ed.), Information Superhighways: Multimedia Users and Futures, London: Academic Press, 79-102.
Times have changed. In the early years of my career as an academic, the poster session used to be sort of a second class offer for presenting at an academic conference. That is no longer the case. Newer generations of academics are trained and attuned to creating posters and infographics to explain and communicate their work. In many cases, it seems like the poster and poster sessions are the preferred mode of presentation, such as compared to sitting on a panel or making a traditional presentation of an academic paper, which is often a set of slides that could be incorporated into a poster.
Anecdotally, I have seen the rising prominence of poster sessions across a wide range of academic conferences I’ve attended over the years, in communication, political science, computer science, and communication policy, such as TPRC. For example, it is increasingly common for a time slot of a conference to be devoted to poster sessions, and not compete with other presentations. I can also see a leap in the sophistication and visualization quality evident in poster sessions. More software, templates, training, and guidelines are being developed to refine posters in an increasingly competitive field.
Younger academics are more attuned to the creation of posters, but I am sure they will continue to develop them as they rise in the academic ranks. I think it is more of a cohort issue than a status issue in academia. But think of the added value of poster sessions to the presenters and their audiences.
From the presenter’s perspective, rather than have one shot to stand in front of a large audience to formally present a paper, they can have multiple opportunities to present the same material to smaller groups or even a single individual. All presentations help you refine your ideas and the logic of your argument, so I would think multiple iterations are even more beneficial. And aware presenters can gauge their presentation to the particular interests and questions of the specific audience they have at the moment. It is wonderful when a member of the audience introduces themselves to you after a panel, but you can introduce your self to many more individuals and network in more effective ways in smaller sessions.
From the audience’s perspective, everyone has been in an academic presentation that did not meet one’s expectations. They misunderstood the title, or came for another paper, and were polite enough to listen to others. But in the case of a poster session, audiences stroll through rows of posters and are able to locate particular topics and presentations of genuine interest. Moreover, the opportunity for some serendipity, finding interest in a topic you had not previously considered, is far more likely. Presenters can spend a few or many minutes not only listening but discussing the topic with the audience. It is truly an efficient as well as an effective presentational style.
Shame on me for not proposing a poster yet in my career. But I am not so blind that I cannot see that the poster has risen as a medium for academic communication and increasingly as a preferred rather than a second choice for leading academics. Universities and research institutes need to support students and faculty who choose this option.
Here is a nice example of a useful, infographic packed poster via Chris Bode’s Twitter:
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.
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. However, there is some limited and more recent evidence that universities and academics are being perceived as more partisan. 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.
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.
Sorry if this sounds patronizing, as you are stellar journalists and politicians, but if you were my students, writing a paper for a college class, what would I say?
I would definitely give you points for effort, and creativity, but would mark your work down on its analytical precision. Happy for you to come in during an office hour, but briefly, let me give you a few examples of my concerns. Apologies in advance for these quick notes.
First, take your vague attributions, which change over time. Who is responsible for meddling with the 2016 US Presidential election? Is it hackers in Russia, Russian oligarchs, Russian nationals, Russians, government hackers, agent’s of the government, the government, the highest levels of government, or President Putin? Your essays keep veering across these various actors. You must see that it makes a difference, so you must be more precise to be credible.
Likewise, what did they do – what was the meddling? Did they hack into email of the DNC, RNC, John Podesta, or others; gain access to county voter registration files; change voter registration files; meet with members of the campaign; loan money (at some point in the past) to members of the campaign; compromise members of the campaign; pass material to WikiLeaks, or one or more of the above? Your discussions keep shifting from one to another accusation as if this were a shell game.
When did this happen? Was it during the 2016 elections, happening now, or is it something that is likely to happen in the future? When you sometimes veer toward the future, it undermines your case.
Where is the evidence? Is it simply based on authority, the intelligence agencies, all of whom happen to agree, even when they seldom or ever confirm or deny anything? Is there evidence beyond hearsay? [By the way, you should not equate the heads of intelligence agencies with scientists, or doubts over Russian interference with climate change denial, as the analogy so flawed that it further undermines your credibility.]
Finally, in line with a major problem with undergraduate writing today, is it something that you often just feel is right? As you would have heard me say in class time and again, your feelings don’t count.
So you can see that given all the possible permutations of who did what, when and where, and all without strong evidence, the essays end up in an analytical muddle. You’ve constructed a wicked problem out of a set of vague accusations that are not critically assessed.
This would be funny if your work did not have such serious consequences. [I should add you do get high marks for impact.] And the impact will last decades and shape governmental institutions in the US in major ways, such as with respect to the role of Congress in foreign policy.
Finally, it would have been good to focus on some things that could be done to avoid the risks you identify, such as shoring up cyber security in all aspects of campaigns and elections, and not moving to electronic voting – a plea that has been made for well over a decade. [See Barbara Simons’ work, for example, who has been warning people about the difficulties of securing electronic voting systems for decades.] You might also reinforce the wisdom of how decentralized voting systems are in the US, meaning that there is no one system, even in a single state, and the need to keep it that way.
That said, great effort, well written, and convincingly spoken, but I regret to say that I cannot give you high marks on your work. And apologies for not addressing every individual journalist and politician talking about the Trump-Russia story, as that would not be possible given the number of you that chose this topic. Nevertheless, as a group, try to focus on developing a more analytically rigorous argument, and ensure that your evidence drives your conclusions rather than the opposite.
Do you think that university instructors should restrict the use of social media in the classroom? While some believe that social media might undermine the boundaries of the classroom, such as by sharing with colleagues who are not enrolled in the class, it is arguable whether this battle has been lost long ago, such as by sharing notes, or audio taping a lecture. Should we relax about this, and let students use social media in any way they find valuable in the classroom? Are you aware of progressive policies to govern the use of social media in the classroom?