Monday, 24 October 2011

Do we still need academic journals?

As we in the UK higher education sector approach the next round of our periodic national research assessment exercise (this time hubristically called the 'Research Excellence Framework') the pressure to publish in 'high-impact' journals intensifies. One of my colleagues has, in fact, this minute sent round some advice on identifying high impact journals, and a couple of useful websites, e.g. the Journal Citation Reports Website:

Impact in journals, as we all know, is calculated on the average number of citations each paper published in the journal gets. Citations are regarded as measure of the extent that papers are read, indicating their contribution to a particular field, but they may also be a measure of the overlap between readership and authorship in a particular journal. If a group of authors frequently publish in a particular journal and frequently cite their own and each other's work in their papers, the impact factor for that journal goes up.

Reviewing my own case,  I've put myself at a disadvantage (I only just managed to scrape into the previous two research assessment exercises) as I haven't tended to pay much attention the impact factors of the journals I publish in. This is because since I stopped being part of a particular scholarly community writing about computer-assisted language learning, in the late 1990s, I  haven't tended to pay much attention to journals for reading purposes at all.  Almost everything I read I find in the reference lists of papers and articles, or through keyword searching in databases and through Google.  Yes, these sources are usually organised into journals, and I'll sometimes find myself downloading two or three papers from the same journal, especially if there has been a special edition in in an area I'm interested in, but my point is that I don't go to the journals first,  I find them incidentally while I search for papers on topics.

I think my 'topic-driven' behaviour is a consequence of the fact that there aren't any journals   dedicated to 'literacy and technology in higher education', which is how I define my interests.    Not only does this mean that I don't have a natural home to publish in, but it also means there are no obvious other authors whose work I can follow consistently - or who are likely to follow mine - as most other authors sensibly associate themselves with particular fields and journals.

As I look through my CV I realise that, not only do I not publish consistently in a single journal, but I haven't published in the same journal twice in the last 10 years!   Here are some of the journals where I've published one paper in the last 10 years:

Distance Education
Language and Education
Journal of Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education
Education communication and information
International Journal of Educational Research
Teaching in Higher Education 

With this range it's not surprising my citation count isn't very impressive. I've managed to maintain a research profile within educational technology by writing and editing books and book chapters, although this would probably serve me in better stead as far as citations are concerned in the Humanities than it does in the social sciences.

 ...and more recently I've been exploring avenues of digital scholarship such as with this blog (although if comments are the equivalent of citations there's not much progress here either).

For myself, and I think quite a lot of other academics in interdisciplinary fields, the identity and the impact factor of a journal is not the main consideration, rather whether some of the people whose work we are citing have published there, giving us an idea of who we are writing for. As  I tend to read quite eclectically, and very seldom from some of the journals with high impact factors in what is supposed to be my official REF-oriented field - educational technology - I find myself wandering from subfield to subfield around the topics  of literacy, language, pedagogy, e-learning, social theory, culture, higher education practice, teaching and learning, etc etc . Not very scholarly I admit,  and not very efficient either.  No way to have an impact but still rather satisfying all the same.

To answer my own question - yes I think we do still need journals, to help us organise our thinking and to ensure that we think about how we write for different audiences. (This only really works, of course, if we write for lots of them, which brings this argument full circle!).

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Reflections on the Bayeux tapestry

The famous multimodal tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 combines figurative images (the events depicted), symbolic images (around the borders), and written text (the Latin commentary), all mediated via a popular representational technology of the time -- embroidery. Here's a typical section of it:
This bit shows William' s men feasting before they get on the boats for England. (Actually this is not a picture of the original tapestry, but a drawing I did  of it while I was on holiday. Yes they did have postcards that I could have bought but I wanted to see how difficult it would be to draw. The hardest bit turned out to be getting the colours something like the originals. I don't think I was particularly successful here - despite having 10 times as many colours at my disposal than the original authors did).

It's interesting too from a literacy-and-technology point of view, not least because you wonder why they bothered with the literacy bit - the Latin commentary which runs throughout the strip and simply describes what you can see happening. It identifies some of the characters, like the Bishop (Odo) in this example,  but they could have done that just as easily with little labels, like political cartoonists do today. You can read the whole text at  and it's clear it must have added quite a bit of work to the overall job. Given the relatively few people at the time who could actually read it (mainly the bishop and his mates),  you wonder if the authors were thinking about readers from the future who might not necessarily already know the story-- like putting a message in a time capsule. Or perhaps they were using the Latin as a kind of stamp of authority - validating the account, as it were, by giving the Church a hand in it.  

Also interesting are the little pictures in the borders top and bottom which as well as decorating the strip apparently contain all sorts of allusions to Aesop and other myths and fables.  According to ( the running theme  of these references is cunning  and betrayal -- and interesting literary, if not exactly literate, device.   

Monday, 17 October 2011

Is tweeting literacy? Or just short-winded conversation?

This is a pic I took sitting in the observation room of the IET Ambient Lab, here at the OU, during a focus group discussion set up by colleagues on the digital scholarship project, that I happened to be observing. The group was discussing their, and other people's, use of twitter for professional communication.
The group is being vidoed live - shown on the screen on the left. At the same time, other colleagues around the university are discussing the same questions on twitter -- shown on the screen on the right. (One of the group facilitators is tweeting the questions as they are asked). The feed from this twitter discussion is projected on the wall in the room where the live group are, but only one of them is paying any attention to it -- she's actually tweeting to the remote group in between contributing to the discussion of the 'present' group.

A lot more words are being used, inevitably, in the face-to-face discussion. And other signs are being used too - facial expressions, body language, as well as the  bits of paper and other media that the facilitators have on the table. By contrast, the tweeters  get through fewer words (even though there is no break in the stream) and their visual signals are limited to punctuation, capitals, smileys, and the odd URL.

Both groups are discussing what they do with technology. The focus group reflect across a range of life and work contexts, going on at length and wandering off at tangents. The twitter group stick mainly to talking about twitter. They 'talk' in turn, are very concise, and generally keep to the point.

I would love to do a proper discourse analysis comparing these two discussions around the same topic. I wonder if it would provide me with grounds to talk about the twitter activity as 'literacy', in a way that I could not do with the face-to-face discussion?  Or would it show the twitter stream to be basically the same kind of conversation, only with a lot less said?


Friday, 14 October 2011

LIDU final report

Now that the end-of-award report from the seminar series has been accepted by ESRC and while we wait for it to appear on the ESRC website, here is an extract from the 'findings' section:

The series has not produced any ‘findings’ as such (it was a seminar series after all, not a research project). However, we are claiming the following ‘clarifications’ of key issues around literacy in the digital university:

1. Conceptualisations of ‘literacy’ amongst educational developers concerned with digital technologies in teaching and learning continue to reflect a polarisation between those who take an ideological (literacy as social practice) and those who adopt an autonomous (literacy as individual competence) perspective.

For example, researchers exploring textuality in digital contexts, and practitioners concerned with the development of skills in digital communication and information management, seem to share little in terms of theoretical assumptions, methodologies, goals and outcomes.

This does not mean, however, that there cannot be any dialogue between researchers and practitioners coming from these different perspectives. The seminars have shown that the two agendas can co-exist productively. Viewpoints can meet over the discussion of principled means of describing practices that teachers and learners engage in when they do ‘university business’ online. Both perspectives can benefit from the analysis of quantitative as well as qualitative data, and from engagement in reflexive as well as analytical deliberation.

2. The idea of the ‘digital university’ is not a given. New conceptualisations of the institution and its practices have emerged from the attempt, during these seminars, to circumvent the differences in disciplinary and pragmatic orientation described above.

These include the concepts of: digital scholarship, the borderless institution, and post-human pedagogies. These keystone concepts will need to inform any research agenda that is developed on the basis of what has gone on in these seminars.