Looking into one of my College’s hallway recycling bins, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.
Online Micro-Choices Shaping Remote Seminars, Teaching, and Learning
The move to online education has been a huge shift, dramatically hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the existence of technical options, such as online meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams. For decades, handwringing and resistance over moves toward more online instruction, seminars, and lectures has collapsed as universities not only accept this shift but are supporting if not requiring it. In many respects, the move online has saved many educational institutions and the new normal – whatever that ends up being – is almost certain to incorporate more online teaching and learning.
However, after participating in many online seminars, lectures, and conferences, I sense that it is time to focus far more attention on the micro-choices being made about the conduct of online teaching and learning. Not focus on on or off-line, but how to do online teaching and learning.
There are books on teaching tips for graduate students and instructors, but fewer for the online world. That said, I imagine that most academics tend to follow the examples set by their own best teachers. Unfortunately, in the online world of education, there are fewer great examples on which developing teachers can model themselves. Moreover, I believe I am seeing so many problematic examples and trends emerging that the micro-choices underpinning them merit more critical discussion.
Take for example, the decision on whether or not to mute the audio and turn off the video of the audience – whether students or fellow colleagues. The convenor of an online session, such as over Zoom, can mute everyone but the speaker and turn off everyone’s video but the speaker’s video, or they can simply ask everyone but the speaker to mute their own audio and turn off their video while the speaker or teacher is presenting. Who has permission to share their screen is another micro-choice of a convenor.
Screen sharing enables people to show a slide or a graph or any image or text that they can put on their own screen to the group. For a small seminar with known participants, everyone can be enabled to share their screen. If open to the public and if a larger group is brought together, screen sharing needs to be restricted to avoid problems such as Zoombombing, such as a malicious user sharing a vulgar image. But it is easy to keep the meeting link to those invited, use passwords to join, and restrict screen sharing to avoid such possible problems.
Muting everyone’s audio during a presentation seems to be good practice as well. You avoid unplanned sounds in households, like the sounds of barking dogs and crying babies, from interrupting a seminar. And individuals normally have a means to raise their hand to ask a question or make a comment, so they can be unmuted when speaking. That said, if it is a small group discussion, such as following a lecture, I think individuals should decide on their own whether to mute, such as if their dog starts barking, but generally remain unmuted to be as interactive as possible during the discussion. When education is being socially distanced in so many ways by going online, any opportunities to enhance sociality and interaction online should be seriously considered.
In contrast, in my opinion, stopping everyone’s video is not a good practice. Unfortunutely, I see this a becoming a trend. In the earliest weeks and months of the pandemic and online meetings, people tended to be visible online all the time even when their audio is muted. With my video on, you could see if I was on the call and that I was listening or if I was multitasking. If I had to leave or take a break, I could switch to a still photo of me or my initials, until I was ready to engage again. More importantly, the speakers would know that they were speaking to real, live, human beings, rather than talking to themselves in a dark room.
Over time, it is clear that more universities and conferences are moving to shut off the video of the audiences, and only have video streaming on for the speaker or the panelists. Often this means that no one is visible as the speaker is presenting slides – such as when talking behind the slides occupying center stage. Once a critical proportion of the audience starts shutting off their video, then others feel pressured to as well, lest they be accused of perceiving themselves as too self-important. But it is for others, not for yourself, that it is good to be seen.
I have taken issue with this minimalist approach to limiting video on the basis that it takes social distancing to an unacceptable and unjustifiable limit. Of course, I’ve heard justifications, such as maintaining the focus on the material on the slides and keeping people from being distracted by the images of audience members. Protecting the privacy of individuals and households is another. There are many ways to protect privacy of the listeners, such as by using a virtual background or sitting in front of a blank wall. Nevertheless, I find such justifications to be weak rationales for avoiding social interaction.
Teaching or lecturing is not simply about transferring information. If that were so, a reading or video recording would be superior to a seminar. Most importantly, teaching or lecturing is about motivating the audience – students or colleagues – to see your topic as important and interesting and worthy of reading and learning more about. That means you need to engage them in the presentation and make sure they are engaged. In the classroom, you can tell if students are not engaged, even if – as was the case in many in-person classes – many are pressed against the back row of seats. You can see if the audience is engaged online as well, but only if you keep the video going both ways.
Also, you need to motivate the lecturer. Unless you are very shy or nervous about public speaking, I can’t think of what could be more deflating that speaking to a set of initials or a blank screen or simply reading your own slides. Cut off the video and you risk disengaging the speaker as well as the audience.
Obviously, I am a cranky, old colleague, easily annoyed, and opinionated. Fine if you disagree with my suggestions, but you should really think through these many micro-choices you make in presenting and speaking and listening online. Discuss them with those convening any seminar where you are presenting.
I accept and defend the right of teachers to present material to their classes in the ways they choose – assuming they are within an increasing set of rules and guidelines set by educational institutions. Similarly, lecturers or speakers should be free to present in ways in which they are comfortable. But be careful that you don’t undermine your ability to engage, educate, and entertain your audience simply by following bad practices set by colleagues that are too cautious or conservative about the issues that might arise from social interaction. Don’t handicap yourself by speaking to an invisible audience or supporting any idea that being invisible is a good idea in online teaching or learning that is engaging.
I began graduate studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Buffalo in 1969 when UB was called the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo). I had graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where I was inspired by a comparative researcher, Professor David M. Wood, to pursue graduate study in political science. The COVID-19 pandemic and the turmoil it has caused reminded me of when I was at UB amid all the disruptions and student strikes on campus during the Vietnam (American) War. Dramatically different periods and problems, but somehow reminiscent.
My cohort arrived at the interim Ridge Lea Campus – a complex of single-story buildings in Amherst. At one point, I remember some were literally buried completely under heavy snow, causing the cancelling of some exams. While I never experienced the new Amherst campus, I had the benefit of fabulous faculty in the process of building a new department.
Professor Lester Milbrath, and his ladder of political participation and his turn to environmental research; philosopher of science Professor Paul Diesing with his focus on what scientists actually do; and urban politics Professor Donald Rosenthal, who introduced me to Banfield and Wilson and case studies of Chicago politics, have all passed away. However, they and other faculty, such as James Stimson, who left UB and is now the Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were such models of intellect, rigor and integrity that they continue to represent the department for me. And Professor Rudolf Wildenmann, even as a Visiting Professor in the Department from the University of Mannheim, were critical to my work. I almost joined him at Mannheim in 1973.
Of course, I also continue to value my fellow students. Coming from the Midwest, my first days of graduate studies were intimidating, but students quickly formed a supportive community. I have fond memories of meeting other students, such as Debbie Dunkle and Steve Peterson, who’ve become lifelong friends. We would meet for coffee and breakfast almost every morning in the Ridge Lea cafeteria. One highlight of our conversations was the frequent occasion when any of the grad students received a rejection letter. They would read it out loud for the group to compare and critique. Whenever a student is worried about a job, I tell them about our stacks of rejections, which I continue to find amusing.
At UB, I focused on urban and comparative politics but also on methods and quantitative data analyses, toting boxes of punch cards around and spending so much time at the central computing center submitting jobs on the big mainframe. SPSS was only being launched while I was a graduate student. I recall colleagues distrusting such software packages as they were too far removed from our own programming. I am sure that my affinity for data analysis created the opportunities I had to work with faculty – so central to my training – but also was key to my move into the study of the political aspects of computing.
My focus today is on Internet studies, most often from a political perspective. The field did not exist when I was in graduate school. In fact, I worked only about one year in a department of political science in my first job at the University of South Florida. Nevertheless, the ideas, theories and methods that I was introduced to at UB have remained central aspects of my work to this day. At every stage of my career, I felt UB had prepared me as well as any of my colleagues for the challenges of research and teaching. I thank the department for whatever success I’ve enjoyed in my career.
William H. Dutton, Emeritus Professor, University of Southern California and Oxford University
Professor Claude Welch
One of the University of Buffalo’s (UB) most outstanding professors, Claude Welch, began his career at UB in 1964 – before my arrival when UB became SUNY-Buffalo – and only recently retired as SUNY Distinguished Service Professor. Professor Welch has been putting together a history of UB’s Department of Political Science and reaching out to former graduate students for their own memories of their days at UB. I never had a class with Claude, but regret missing that opportunity. He has chaired or been a member of an amazing number of dissertation committees, and is one of the few professors I know of who has had a video produced to recognise him as a gifted teacher, entitled ‘Calling it a Career‘.
My thanks to Claude Welch for putting together his history of the department and reaching out to former students like myself. It made me realise how seldom I stop to recognise those who tried to teach me what political scientists do. But I’ve always appreciated their contributions to my education.
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. 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.
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 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. 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. There are early predictions of likely financial and pedagogical implications. And many discussions within and across disciplines about how to teach online. 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. 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. 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.
Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.
 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/
 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.
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 here.
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.
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.