This Thing is a special double feature. Side A features consideration some ethical of teaching online, as Christian Gilliam (University of Cambridge) asks How can we combat ‘digital exclusion’? Side B brings the voice of experience of Dawn Duke (Africa Research Excellence Fund), talking about publication strategy. In both cases, we emphasise the importance of planning ahead and considering your audience.
Press Play to begin.
This Thing is brought to you by the letters E, T, H, I, C and S, and features our resident Continental philosopher Christian Gilliam.
My initial intention was to write a piece on ethics, technology and teaching. Upon reflection, I realised that this would open up far too many avenues for exploration within the confines of a blog. We could, for instance, talk about the metaethics of technology and its use, i.e. do we approach technology as utilitarians, as de-ontologists, from the perspective of virtues and eudemonia? Or we could just as easily get into applied ethics, as in the day-to-day ethical practices of research and technology, e.g. the sorts of ethical questions typical of research projects, addressing such things as the protection of personal data or limiting the potential of harm to research subjects? And much more besides!
In the end, I thought it best to leave this to one side and focus on the immediate issues presented by technology to PhD students and ECRS, particularly in terms of teaching and with a focus on ‘digital exclusion’. To this end, I have reproduced an abridged version of an article I wrote for Times Higher on the same topic: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/we-must-factor-digital-exclusion-when-designing-online-teaching
Concepts such as inclusion and engagement are front and centre of current pedagogical discussions. Unfortunately, the attention we’re giving them has resulted in neglect of the less titillating but more practical elements of online teaching. Such elements are just as integral to good pedagogical design as the more theoretical – after all, technologies determine the final form in which an online class will be delivered, and it’s widely acknowledged that form determines both reception and comprehensibility. You may have truly superb content, but if the form is lacking, the content is undermined.
None of this is to say the theoretical and practical aspects of teaching can and should be treated separately. Far from it. If inclusion and digital engagement are to be a methodological and ethical end, then we cannot, as teachers, ignore either digital exclusion or the digital poverty gap.
A recent study here at Cambridge found that the digital poverty gap has increased for schoolchildren since the start of the pandemic. The gap does not exclusively concern schoolchildren, though, as the research confirms, “The likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income, such that only 51 per cent of households earning £6,000-£10,000 had home internet access compared with 99 per cent of households with an income of over £40,001.” Here are a few other articles on the same topic:
1. Hannah Holmes and Dr Gemma Burgess, University of Cambridge, on digital exclusion, poverty and school teaching: https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/digitaldivide [last accessed 11 May 2021]
2. Sarah Horrocks, director of Education Development Trust’s London Connected Learning Centre, on bridging the digital divide in teaching: https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/our-research-and-insights/commentary/bridging-the-digital-divide-evidence-and-advice-on
3. A summary paper from a round table discussion facilitated by the Education Policy Institute on enabling a blended learning approach as a means to addressing the digital divide: https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/EPI-Digital-Divide_summary-paper.pdf
Digital poverty is a very real thing and very likely to affect a large proportion of students.
I argue that “exclusion” is a more useful and inclusive term, though. A “poverty gap” implies inequity is a matter of material wealth and its attendant technology capabilities only − between those with fast internet, fancy computers and, ultimately, reliable performance; and those with slow, old and relatively inexpensive computers (if the student has a computer at all).
“Digital exclusion” encompasses digital poverty and the simple but ever-so-important fact that some students are more technologically capable than others. It is often assumed that students, by virtue of their average youth, are a monolithic block of technological whizzes. Certainly, there is a correlation between material capability and technical capability, but it is not a necessary one.
It seems only right that we show sensitivity to this notion in our class designs and modes of delivery. We should make it a priority to discover what our students are technologically comfortable with and what equipment they have available. A quick survey can capture most of this information without feeling too intrusive for the student. Collating responses before the module starts is ideal, allowing the teacher to appropriately adjust the form and delivery.
Another example of digital sensitivity is seeking presentational consistency – it’s better to send or share one document per class with all materials enclosed and ordered in linear fashion. Allow time for students to open it and orientate themselves.
Finally, avoid frequent activities that need digital multitasking − going between two or more documents, two or more programmes, or between the teacher’s shared screen and a document. This is simply too distracting and, more importantly, it unnecessarily adds variables and increases the probability of difficulty. The more complex the mechanics of an online activity, the greater the risk that a student will be excluded.
We can consider this the Occam’s razor of pedagogy: the simple is the most beautiful and correct. So, keep the activity simple in focus, remembering that any content should only be included in class design for the purposes of enhancing engagement. Adding activity for the sake of it is poor pedagogy.
So many issues from a seemingly straight-forward disparity! And we have yet to even consider differences in learning types and abilities. That in itself is worthy of discussion, and when included with the above, reveals a matrix of variables to contemplate when designing online teaching with engagement and inclusion in mind.
Perhaps pushing us to reconsider engagement and inclusion, with their many nuances, is an advantage of being pushed online. Either way, the immediate consideration for us is as simple as it is effective: less is more.
With this axiom in mind, I set about re-designing my online courses. Specifically, I shortened all sessions to last no more than 2 hrs, break included; I stripped back the slides, opting for a minimalist form that better enables the student to actively listen; I created a linear workbook for each course, including slide content, links to relevant materials and activity spaces, ensuring the workbook is saved in a universal format, i.e. Rich Text Format; reduced class sizes, in some cases to 20, to enable collective and engaged discussion; and finally, I avoid using fancy technologies and platforms in-session unless absolutely necessary to the pedagogy. Since making these changes I have recorded a tangible increase in attendance numbers as compared to last year and the year before that. Granted, there are many other variables at play, including the forced transition to online-only. Nevertheless, we can make a reasonable inference from this figures that things are going well. My experience with the students, the engagement I get within class, the number of students that keep coming back, all these things give me further cause for confidence in the axiom.
Now a question for you: what else can we do?
Share your own experiences of teaching or being taught, what worked or didn’t, with your pod.
If you have not had the pleasure of meeting Dawn Duke in real life, you need to imagine this blog in a very friendly American voice, with a lot of laughter and enthusiasm.
Your Publication Strategy
A senior colleague once advised that I should always have at least one publication in each of these three publication stages at any one time:
1) A publication that you are planning, i.e. doing the research on currently, or writing, or planning a book proposal for, etc.
2) A publication that you are writing.
3) A publication that is in the process of being published, i.e. submitted and undergoing peer-review, corrections or is in press.
At the time I thought she was crazy (and she is a little :) ). How in the world could I ever be able to plan all of that? Publications happen when you have enough research to publish, surely you can always know when that is going to happen? At the time, I tended to write at the end of a research project and didn’t think about writing consistently throughout, and I also didn’t think too broadly about the audiences or types of publications I could potentially be writing for. I was thinking of publication simply as dissemination of my research results to people who were very much like me (i.e. professionals researching in a specific field), not as an avenue to engage and communicate research with a range of different people and to define one’s own research career vision and impact. This is where I was going wrong.
Publication is our outlet to shine a light on our research to a wide range of people. It is also our opportunity to define our specific niche within the larger research world. What is it that we are passionate about researching? Why does it matter? What makes our approach unique? What difference do we want to make to the field? To the community? To the world? Publication is the vehicle of this, and a publication strategy that is built based on your individual values, goals and expertise can help define you as a researcher.
The key to a strong publication strategy to think about what you want to get out of publication. What impact do you want your research to have? For many researchers this impact has to do with communicating their core research to the broadest academic audience possible, leading to more people reading your academic papers, and importantly, more citations. Therefore, prioritising publishing of research results in journals/platforms that reach a large academic audience is key. This may mean targeting top tier journals, as well as ensuring your article are openly accessible to people via open access publication options.
However, there are other avenues of publication that can enhance one’s career. Publishing method/methodology papers or review papers can enhance your reputation in certain targeted areas. Publishing in professional/lay publications can help expand the impact of your research into groups of people for which academic publication is not likely to research. Equally, policy briefings or papers may be of interest for researchers wishing to influence policy on various levels. Even a blog, much like this one, is an avenue to reach out and build your profile as a researcher. These alternative publications can support and point to your main academic research outputs in a way that is more easily accessible to a wider audience. A good publication strategy will have a mix of different publication types, so that even if you are not currently ready to write that big seminal paper, you can be writing a range of different publications to build your profile and communicate your key research messages.
To further support you in developing your own publication strategy, I am including a publication strategy template I have used to support researchers in developing their own publication strategy and Publication Strategy Top Tips our book, Publishing for Impact.
A Publication Strategy Template
Fill in each of the boxes to bring together your publication strategy. Make sure you frequently reflect on your plan and adjust to ensure it is realistic. Also do include success measures, such as number of reads/citations/share you wish to achieve. This will allow you to better reflect on whether your plan is having the impact you intend. Also think about how you will promote each publication, through social media, conference publication or other ways of promotion.
Top tips for developing a Publication Strategy
1) Determine the key messages you would like to convey.
2) Think about the different types of people who may be interested in your messages.
3) Prioritise publication of your research results, and take the time to ensure their quality and fit with the identified publication type and location.
4) Plan different types of publication, including both academic publication and lay publication; you can maximise your impact by generating a varied publication portfolio.
5) Take advantage of opportunities to co-author publications.
6) Plan for peer-review rejections, using them as learning experiences.
7) Aim high in terms of journal and publisher quality but have pragmatic second and third options.
8) Actively promote your publications, social media and academic talks/conferences can be good vehicles.
9) Define success measures within your strategy, reflect on how successful your publications are and adapt your strategy to continually improve.
10) Enjoy the process. Your passion and care for your work should shine through in all of your publications.
These tips and the template, as well as a variety of other resources can be found in:
Dawn Duke, Erin Henslee & Pam Denicolo (2020) Success in Research: Publishing for Impact. London: Sage. https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/publishing-for-impact/book263445.
As the credits for this feature-length blog roll, we’d love to hear from you about it. What are the best advice or tips you’ve ever been given about publication? Or the worst? Discussion on the forum, please.