Blogging for students, teachers, schools and researchers

Why do we blog? Well, to some extent, it is to validate and show off our thoughts and achievements and to communicate with like-minded others. However, while we want our students to be proud of their achievements and thinking, the main focus as educators is to shift that pride and praise towards their development as a process, rather than the outcomes. So, blogging can be used to promote a ‘look at what I did’ outlook, but is, I would argue, best applied for a ‘look at how I did it’ outcome. In this way, blogging can encourage metacognitive awareness for improved development for all stakeholders.

Broadly, metacognition is defined under two areas:

  • Understanding what you know
  • Understanding how you know

So, metacognition is, basically, thinking about thinking. Metacognition has two proposed benefits. Most importantly, that the learner knows how to use strategies effectively in learning. So, a metacognitively aware student might approach a science text by chunking, summarising and/or looking up unfamiliar terms because they are aware that this helps them to think and learn. In contrast, a less metacognitively aware student might just try to passively read it and get disheartened by a lack of understanding. Metacognition is therefore a very useful educational goal and process.

Blogging for metacognition is not a new concept. Learning Journals and so on have endlessly proposed that writing about a learning process can help students establish useful learning habits and self-discipline. It is an engaging and self-reflective process, especially when given some direction. Blogs work in a similar way, except that they further allow the teacher and public to engage with the learning process also, giving futher motivation (albeit extrinsic) for the learner. This equally applies to teachers with their CPD or political developments and academics with their research and attempts to integrate research and practice by extending to a wider audience. I have found that writing this blog has helped me consider what aspects of my working style are most useful, which are problematic and how to overcome the challenges I have faced so far.

An example of use of blogs in education is the newly established SPFTogether, a blog looking at promoting collaboration and sharing between three schools in the Stephen Perse Foundation. While at an embryonic stage and currently written primarily by teachers, it is hoped that soon students will be direct authors and editors and that this will evolve from an outcome showcase to include metacognitive awareness of process of learning. Elements of this are already to be seen in the Sixth Form Peliblog. These articles are written by Sixth Form students and blog posts can frequently be observed to describe, if only in passing, references to how that particular student thinks. I would love to see this metacognitive consciousness expanded and promoted by all students in all schools. I don’t think there are many professions that are quite as self-reflective (and often unwarrantedly self-critical) as teaching. It is this self-reflection, without the negative self-criticism, that we need to help our students to practice and express. I believe that blogging is one of the easiest methods, both for the student and teacher.

There are, of course, other benefits to encouraging blogging within the classroom – awareness of the potential and the pitfalls of the digital world, for one. All these teacher photos begging for reposting to show how easily a photo can get around the internet are, rather negatively, making an interesting point. Frankly, I think that most teenagers have the negatives of the scary internet world drummed into them enough (although I had a CEOPS lecture last year where the speaker talked about screen-munchies, frappe-ing and snape-chat, showing a deporable lack of understanding of of either the origins of the words or the dangers these can pose). Panic-mongering is not helpful. Rather, the positives of safe internet use should be emphasised and digital interaction should be integrated into formal education. Blogging can help with this, as argued above – students (and teachers) should be learning about new technologies, copyright issues and other issues supported by regular and thoughtful blogging or tweeting. I applaud the introduction of the year of code, but I feel that equally important is teaching students about how to use safe, positive and engaging learning tools such as blogging, educational apps and twitter beyond the add-on gimmickery some teachers and researchers fear. Learning is always the goal, but the digital world is both a tool and a necessary learning outcome of education.

Related

http://infed.org/mobi/writing-and-keeping-journals-a-guide-for-educators-and-social-practitioners/ 

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Open Access Publishing

English: Open Access logo and text
Open Access logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an embryonic researcher, I am following the debate about open access with some interest. Within academic publishing, open access means free access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. Open access is facilitated by the internet and by the resultant change in reading habits and use of databases.

As observed by Renear and Palmer, during the last 30 years scientists have almost doubled the number of scientific papers read per year. Meanwhile, the time spent reading each article has decreased from 48 minutes to just over 30 minutes (Renear and Palmer, 2009). So, reading habits are changing – no longer do researchers traipse to the library to pore over heavy volumes of various journals. Instead, much of journal reading is done online, encouraged by the use of excellent citation managers and biblographic databases, as discussed in my previous blog post Using Referencing Software. Is open access the way to support this evolution and encourage rigorous, broad and extended research?

Benefits of Open Access

Open access enables the general public to engage with current research. Access to the evidence supporting political and scientific argument in the form of research articles is key. One of the most positive examples of this is the case of Jack Andraka, a boy who used Google Scholar to access journal articles. Aged 15, Jack used his research to develop an early test for pancreatic cancer that allegedly has the potential to save many lives. This story may or may not be true, given the dearth of peer-reviewed papers around the discovery. However, the truth of this one story does not reduce possibilities for new and unexpected disoveries. Open access can potentially encourage a wider audience and so elicit different perspectives and insights.

Members of the public have the right to have access to the research that, in many cases, is funded by their taxes. This right is accepted and even explicitly promoted by ethical boards such as BERA, whose guidelines state that “researchers have a responsibility to seek to make public the results of their research for the benefits of  educational professionals, policy makers and a wider public understanding of educational policy and practice” (2011, p.10). Public understanding is a goal of research and so public availability of research articles is the right of the public and the responsibility of the research community.

University libraries cannot possibly subscribe to every journal out there. Equally, researchers, especially poverty-stricken postgraduates such as myself, cannot pay for all the articles within their sphere of interest that are published outside their library’s subscriptions. Perhaps that article, although investigating from a different perspective or within a different context or epistemology, could inspire and improve the quality of my research. The ability to reference and build upon other’s research is one of the major motivations for open access.

Challenges of Open Access

Perhaps the major potential drawback to open access is that of funding. If the financial burden of publishing is shifted from the reader to the research community, money may be diverted from funding research to funding publication. Some stakeholders argue that this is potentially more devastating in fields with lower funding such as many of the social sciences (Meadows, 2014). However, given the prohibitive costs universities already pay in subscription fees, this deficit may not cause such a shortfall as predicted.

Another potential drawback is the possible reduction of reliability. Universities have a vested interest in their faculty being published and so it is argued that internal peer-review may be less rigorous than that conducted by independent publishers. This may indeed be true, if for no other reason than it is harder to critically review someone that you know and admire (especially if they sit further up the career ladder). Anonymity is not possible in the same way as for traditional peer-review. However, a potential alternative is that of crowd-sourcing peer review, such as that described by Cohen (2010). Crowd-sourcing would retain anonymity, encourage breadth of reviewers and of commentary. A parallel can be seen in fan fiction sites and other creative writing web platforms – critical commentary is encouraged and (often) acted upon. So, while there is a danger to independent review by encouraging open access, there are alternatives that can promote independence, breadth and interaction with non-traditional reviewers.

I leave you with a final thought – I have butted heads with one or two teachers about making resources such as worksheets available on iTunes U, TES and the like. Their argument is that they put a lot of time into their resources and why should anyone else be able to waltz in and use them? Is the quality of their teaching is in any way diminished by sharing resources? No. What excellent resources or ideas have they gained from other teachers’ sharing? Lots. I feel the same way towards academic research as I do towards teaching practice and resources. No man is an island, entire of himself – we need to share and grow as a community rather than working as isolated individuals.

Bibliography

BERA (2011) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. Available at:  http://www.bera.ac.uk/publications/Ethical%20Guidelines [Accessed: 2 Jan 2014]

Cohen, P (2010) Scholars Test Web Alternative to Peer Review Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/24/arts/24peer.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0 [Accessed: 2 Jan 2014]

Meadows, A. (2014) A Brighter Future for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences?. The scholarly kitchen, [blog] 2nd January, Available at: http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/01/02/a-brighter-future-for-the-arts-humanities-and-social-sciences/ [Accessed: 2 Jan 2014].

Renear, A. H., & Palmer, C. L. (2009). Strategic reading, ontologies, and the future of scientific publishing. Science, 325(5942), 828–832. doi:10.1126/science.1157784

Scientific Texts

I vividly remember the first scientific article I read. It was absolutely bewildering. I tried highlighting, summarising, re-phrasing – I still could not seem to understand what the authors had done, why they did it and what conclusions they came to. My peers were in the same boat, struggling through storm waves of incomprehension. We were completely unprepared for this type of text. My M.Ed research also indicated that students still struggle with scientific texts, particularly scientific articles. This is not surprising, given that scientific texts are unique in several ways.

Features of scientific texts

Scientific texts differ from narrative texts or even other informational texts.

Firstly, scientific texts have a notoriously high level of lexical density. This simply means that there is a lot of content crammed into fewer clauses, sentences and paragraphs. Scientific texts also make use of nominalisation, which in itself increases lexical density.

Nominalisation involves turning verbs into nouns, implying an impartial distance while compressing information. For example, ‘Germany invaded Poland in 1939. This was the immediate cause of the Second World War breaking out’ becomes ‘Germany’s invasion of Poland was the immediate cause of the outbreak of the Second World War’.

Perhaps the most difficult of all to overcome is the demand for local inferencing. For example, ‘The wire thickness was measured using Vernier callipers, three times over the length of the wire, and the average obtained. These are accurate to within 0.001 millimetres.’ The inference required is the understanding that ‘these’ refers to the Vernier callipers. While this example is not especially complex, some scientific articles require inferencing across not just a sentence or two, but up to 30 lines.

Finally, scientific texts are demanding in terms of conceptual content. It is not that other domains don’t require conceptual engagement, but some science  content can seem counter-intuitive and therefore readers have misconceptions that need to be overcome.

 

Several researchers have observed that reading instruction is almost absent from secondary schools, except for generic instruction for struggling readers. Additionally, much of the research that has been done on literacy in secondary schools has been within language classrooms. It is vital to situate reading in science within science classrooms, rather than adapting generic literacy instruction. It is this area or gap in research that my PhD aims to tackle.

Training Courses in Social Statistics

For the past four weeks I have been industriously running from work to attend a statistics course (Bivariate Statistics in R). Although my undergraduate degree was in Physics, my M.Ed focused on qualitative data. So, I had not applied any stats in social science, and was a bit uncertain. Hence, my attendance at this course.

Why did I choose R?

R is open source. This is useful for three reasons. Firstly, it means not having to pay for it, which makes students cheer. Secondly, it ensures the reproducibility of the analysis. Finally, open source means that lots of clever people around the world are free to make improvements and add packages to increase functionality.

Although in theory R requires more understanding of programming language (than, for example, SPSS), the syntax is much more consistent. This makes it much quicker to advance your understanding and skills beyond a basic level. Also, using a programming language means that if you come across a bug or something that you want to do that has no source code, you can write the code yourself rather than waiting for someone else.

The graphics in R are more sophisticated (and exportable as PDF’s). Again, you can control every aspect so that your graph looks exactly how you want, rather than how a company believes you should make it look.

Topics Covered

Within this course, we looked at correlation, chi-squared tests, t-tests and ANOVA. It was a really well delivered course and anyone wanting to learn about bivariate statistics, I suggest looks at the course materials (see link above).

Was it useful?

Very. Not just in terms of content (some of which I had encountered before, but not all) or in terms of familiarity with R, but this course really increased my confidence in the importance and application of statistics in the social science and my understanding of the reasoning behind the bewildering array of statistical tests.

What next?

This course was provided as part of a cross-faculty initiative funded by the ESRC. I imagine that many universities provide a similar range of courses for postgraduate students. Although you must weigh the loss of time from reading or writing for your thesis, it is worth checking these out and trying a few that seem relevant to you.

For myself, I plan to try further stats courses. However, I do anticipate that a lot of my data will be qualitative (such as interviews and observations). So, I’m going to have a go at an Atlas.Ti course and education specific courses looking at ethics, interviews etc. The only pity is that, as a part-time student, I struggle to make some of the interesting courses that are scheduled during the day.