Archives for February 2009

Does academic writing matter like it used to?

Do blogging and other Web 2.0 tools have a negative impact on academic writing? One professor in England has noticed a substantial decrease in the output of his academic publications even as his blogging has increased over the past couple of years.

I think he makes a couple of extremely valid points:

  1. The motivation to write papers has decreased – apart from getting
    an RAE ranking, the main reason to publish is to share ideas and
    fulfill a creative urge to write. Blogging meets these needs better
    than formal publications.

  2. There is more than one way to
    network. I’m not a big fan of attending conferences (I’ve got enough
    bags, thanks), but I used to go to quite a few as this was the only way
    of getting to know those in your field. So, I used to write conference
    papers to achieve this aim. Now, I have a much wider and richer network
    through blogging and twitter, so that motivation is also reduced. I
    still think it’s valid, and meeting people face to face adds to that
    network, but it doesn’t have the monopoly it once did.

I suspect the first point may be impacted by your particular discipline. Some disciplines seem to be more “academically rigorous” than others, requiring practitioners of that discipline to produce quite a few academic publications over the course of a year (depending on the nature and complexity of the research question, of course). He is actually a professor of Educational Technology, which is a fairly new discipline, I think.

My own discipline, technical communication, is also a fairly new discipline, though its practitioners come from a long line of proto-technical communicators dating back thousands of years. However, the modern incarnation of technical communication is still trying to gain traction as an actual discipline like engineering and science. Fortunately for us, we (technical communicators) are wonderfully poised to take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogging and wikis to share our knowledge and practices with each other. Which leads to his second point.

In olden times (before Web 2.0), going to conferences was one of the only ways in which to meet fellow practitioners. Indeed, in my own field, we were sometimes surprised to meet up with fellow technical communicators at various scientific and engineering conferences because we somehow thought we were all alone. Technical writing conferences eventually sprang up simply so fellow technical writers could meet up with each other. I’ve attended several educational technology conferences in the past year (Helix, MITC, and our own Teaching and Learning Technology Conference, for instance). This has given me the opportunity to see others using technology and sharing ideas. At a conference at UMSL this past fall, one of the keynote speakers actually used a blog as his presentation (instead of using PowerPoint, which is the “traditional” technology).

The comments to Professor Weller’s posts are as interesting as the post itself. A couple of commenters (including the Professor) strongly recommend that PhD candidates use a blog during their research activities. This is an excellent way to capture ideas and thoughts as you are conducting your research. Although your blog postings won’t have the same academic writing rigor as a more traditional publication, they can help you not only organize your thoughts into something coherent, you can use them as a foundation for your actual academic publications like your thesis or dissertation. Furthermore, since the blog posts are all timestamped, you can see how your thoughts have evolved over time. Blogs also allow you to categorize each of your posts (like this one, for instance), which means your research blog posts can be indexed according to different aspects of your research.

Hat tip: Angie Hammons for pointing me at this article and asking some questions.


Why wikis? What good are they?

Angie Hammons found a recent article in Campus Technology discussing the use of Wikis in the classroom. The article points out, in Angie’s words, that it is not enough to say to your students, “There is a wiki. Now go collaborate.” There need to be specific goals and timelines explained to the students as they begin to use the wiki.

One of the key aspects of learning is the ability to create a meaningful repository of knowledge in the students that they can draw upon at need in various situations:

Knowledge is not a distinct or quantifiable body of content; knowledge
is information that has become understood and applied in some sort of
meaningful context so that it can be “known” by the student. We often
test information recall in our courses but we do not always evaluate
knowledge development. The Wiki can help in this process of moving
information towards useable knowledge.

In other words, the wiki can serve as a way for the instructor to gauge how students are implementing the knowledge they are learning. As the wiki manager, the instructor can offer feedback and corrections to any content the students create in the wiki, without being overly intrusive or negative towards the students. Students can review the changes that are made by the instructor since wikis implement a version control mechanism that allows the users to track the history of changes made to a wiki page.

Implementing a wiki also leads to an increase in the collaboration skills of the students in a course. In recent years, there has been a very, very strong trend to include collaborative learning projects into courses. When students enter the workforce, they will need to be able to work together with other people, often from very different backgrounds, in order to accomplish a task. This often takes the form of writing projects such as reports, memos, and other interoffice communications. I know in Educational Technology, we often get together to work on various written documents to ensure that not only are we accurately capturing information in written form, but also that all parties with a vested interest are fairly represented in the final document.

A concrete example of collaborative communication is all of the announcements that are sent out from the EdTech office. At least three people have reviewed each announcement before it is released. Each person is also given the opportunity to suggest any revisions (and is encouraged to explain the revision, if necessary).

We also use a wiki in our office, as do several other functional groups in IT. The wiki allows us to produce flexible documentation that may change over time. For instance, we put our classroom technology maintenance documentation on our wiki. If we modify or upgrade our technology, then we can easily revise the documentation to reflect any changes in maintenance procedures. We also have the benefit of reviewing the history of changes in case we need to “roll back” to a previous set of documentation. In fact, all of the documentation for users of our Numerically Intensive Computing (NIC) cluster services is contained in a wiki. This is largely driven by the fact that the NIC environment is changing continuously as it grows and develops to meet our users’ needs.

One of our professors on campus even used a wiki to engage in a collaborative research project with colleagues at another institution. He needed some way that everyone involved in the research project could view and modify documents pertaining to the research grant and the wiki offered an acceptable solution. He also uses wikis in his courses to that his students can collaboratively create knowledge with students at another institution engaged in similar learning processes.

Blackboard Maintenance on Friday, February 6

Blackboard_Logo.jpgBlackboard will be unavailable for approximately one hour sometime between 5:30pm and 10:00pm on Friday, February 6, during the regularly scheduled maintenance window. System administrators will be applying patches during this outage.

This maintenance will fix an issue with the way Blackboard has been archiving discussion board posts. Previously, when a course has been archived, discussion board posts were not being archived with their attachments or follow-up threads. Only top-level threads posted by the instructor were being preserved in the archive.

After Friday’s maintenance, archiving a course will preserve all of the discussion board threads and attachments. Instructors will still need to select that Discussion Boards will be included in the archive.

Course Copy or Export will NOT preserve all of the discussion board threads and attachments. Course Copy and Export functions will continue to exhibit the behavior of only preserving the top-level threads created by the instructor. Student-created top-level discussion board posts and attachments will not be preserved.

For more information, please contact the Help Desk at (573) 341-HELP.