Using Blogs and New Media in Academic Practice: Potential Roles in Research, Teaching, Learning, and Extension
- First Online:
- Cite this article as:
- Powell, D.A., Jacob, C.J. & Chapman, B.J. Innov High Educ (2012) 37: 271. doi:10.1007/s10755-011-9207-7
- 1.1k Views
Compiling a referenced article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal is traditionally the most respected means of contributing to a body of knowledge. However, we argue that publication of evidence-based information via new media – especially blogging – can also be a valid form of academic scholarship. Blogs allow for rapid sharing of research methods, results, and conclusions in an open, transparent manner. With proper references, blogs and other new media can position academic research in the public sphere and provide rapid, reliable information in response to emerging issues. They can also support other traditional goals of higher education institutions, serving as tools for teaching, learning and outreach.
Key wordsNew mediaSocial mediaBloggingAcademic scholarship
In 2004, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster selected the word blog as word of the year, the most looked-up term on its site that year (British Broadcasting Corporation 2004). Initially known as web logs, blogs are commonly used as Internet spaces where authors provide personal commentary on events, issues, and ideas, while allowing for interaction and the creation of new ideas (Perlmutter 2008). Blogs typically consist of dated entries, displayed linearly in reverse chronological order; and they combine text, images, and links to other blogs and web pages (Bukvova 2011). Blogs allow for the rapid dissemination of unfiltered material, changing the speed, reach, and practice of reporting, knowledge sharing, and idea generation compared to traditional avenues such as print media. Surveys of the American public revealed the extent to which blogs had established themselves as a key part of online culture in 2004. Already at that time, 7% of the 120 million adults in the United States who used the Internet reported they created blogs while 27% – about 32 million Americans – read blogs (Rainie 2005). By 2008, online U.S. adults who reported reading blogs had risen to 32% (Zickuhr 2010). Studies have indicated similar levels of blog readership outside the U.S. as well. For example, 14.5 million people in the United Kingdom visited at least one blog in August 2008, representing 41% of the total U.K. Internet audience (comScore 2008); and 29 million of Brazil’s 37.5 million Internet users visited blogs in August 2010 (comScore 2010). In 2010, Technorati, a blog community and analysis site, noted in its State of the Blogosphere report that bloggers’ use of and engagement with various social media tools are expanding; and the lines between new media forms such as blogs, micro-blogs (e.g., Twitter), and social networks (e.g., Facebook) are disappearing (Sobel 2010).
Within the context of higher education we propose several perceptions of blogging and other new media in this article. We suggest that new media present an opportunity in academic scholarship and outreach to provide readers with evidence-based information in an accessible format based upon free exchange (Kirkup 2010). Blogging is a distinct form of authorship that can support the goals of higher education institutions and can complement and contribute to traditional forms of scholarly publication. Blogs can also be used as tools to facilitate research, collaboration, and the sharing of knowledge (Park et al. 2011). The traditional purposes of higher education institutions, and particularly of U.S. land-grant universities, that is, to conduct research, provide education, and offer service through community outreach and extension (National Institute of Food and Agriculture 2009), can be supported by evidence-based blogs and other new media. These media offer an avenue for faculty members to engage a society in which use of the Internet has become common and routine.
Priem and Hemminger (2010) noted that blogging is increasingly being used as a platform for scholars to voice ideas in a less formal setting than traditional publication channels. New media, including blogs, allow authors to publish information easily online that is instantaneously available to their peers and the broader global Internet community, facilitating rapid knowledge sharing and providing opportunities for interaction or collaboration between and among the author and blog readers in real time. We believe that researchers, educators, and extension personnel at publicly-funded institutions should be encouraged to use blogs and other new media to strengthen relations with public stakeholders and enhance their engagement with interested individuals, groups, and subject matter experts.
Blogs and New Media in Research and Scholarship
New media, including blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook, and Twitter, can provide a venue for scholarly discussion and popularization of research (Walker 2006). New media outlets provide academic researchers with an additional platform to make the research process more available to the public before and after publication in traditional journals. For example, one Ph.D. student shared research data and conclusions in almost-real time, blogging about her dissertation as she wrote it (Efimova 2009). Blogging enables researchers in all disciplines to engage in peer debate, share early results, or seek help with experimental issues (McGuire 2008; Skipper 2006). Using new media, researchers can disclose details of method design, data collection instruments, initial results, and other information that currently does not fit the regimented format of journals. This was exemplified in a 2010 survey of nearly two thousand researchers around the world who were using social media tools to support their research activities: social media was used to support every phase of the research lifecycle, from identifying research opportunities to dissemination of results. Using social media was reported to help researchers communicate effectively with diverse audiences at remote distances and across disciplinary divides. However, barriers to social media use included the lack of clarity over the precise benefits that might accrue to the researcher and uncertainty related to a variety of factors including authority, trust, moral rights, and copyright (Charleston Observatory 2010).
The ability of researchers to share information rapidly increases opportunities for cooperation and has the potential to improve research rigor. Blogs, for example, usually offer comment fields or communication functions that allow readers to discuss and provide feedback on blog content. Although typically mediated by the blog host, these spaces provide open access to a broad spectrum of potential reviewers who can participate in a continual and immediate critique of the information conveyed on the blog and contribute their own information to it (Bukvova 2011; Putnam 2011). This review, criticism, and response process is not unlike the traditional approach provided by editors and peer reviewers in the process of paper publication, albeit in a less-structured and more rapid manner. In 2008, computer science professor Noah Wardrip-Fruin used his group-authored blog, Grand Text Auto (http://grandtextauto.org), to solicit reviews of his forthcoming book at the same time that the book’s publisher sent it out for traditional, press-solicited, peer review. Wardrip-Fruin used the comments from both the blog-based and press-solicited reviews to revise the manuscript for publication. In his recounting of his experience with the blog-based review, Wardrip-Fruin noted that the blog-based format encouraged a collaborative and conversational approach between and among the reviewers and Wardrip-Fruin himself; this experience was notably different from the traditional blind peer-review process. In the blog-based format, Wardrip-Fruin also found he was able to engage a wide range of participants with a breadth of expertise in an open and dynamic way. He was able to enrich the review process by involving persons who might rarely review academic manuscripts (Wardrip-Fruin 2009).
This is not to suggest that blogs and new media should replace the traditional publication avenues for scholarly work such as journals, books, and conference proceedings. However, new media can be complementary to these traditional avenues; and they have the advantage of being more readily and quickly accessible and usually at a lower cost than traditional publication outlets. In fact, publishers of scholarly work are beginning to harness new media. For example, the American Journal of Nursing (http://journals.lww.com/ajnonline/) now allows authors to submit videos to enhance their written manuscript, or provide video as their primary submission accompanied by a written description. The Journal of Visualized Experiments (http://www.jove.com/) is a peer-reviewed journal that publishes physical, chemical, medical, and life science research in a video format, based on the premise that video is a more appropriate medium with which to communicate complex experimental techniques. Neuroscience researchers at the Salk Institute have also detailed steps of current research through YouTube videos (http://www.youtube.com/salkinstitute). George Mason University has taken the step to combine new media and scholarly publication even further by launching PressForward (http://pressforward.org) in June 2011, which will serve as a digital publishing platform for scholarship and intellectual discussion on the Internet.
Priem and Hemminger (2010) noted that the linking culture of bloggers is closely related to the citing culture of academics and that scholarly bloggers tend to credit their sources. Bloggers and other users of new media must be cognizant of the protection of intellectual property and avoid copyright infringements just as do writers and users of traditional print media. Research bloggers and others who use the Internet to disseminate research-related information often protect their work with tailored copyright licenses provided by Creative Commons (Bärstad 2011). Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org) is a charitable organization, supported by donations, that offers a set of copyright licenses and tools free of charge that can be used to protect online work in a range of manners from full protection, through “some rights reserved” approaches, to “all rights granted”. The use of a Creative Commons license is one of many avenues that bloggers and others who create work using new media can protect their property. For example, the blogging platform WordPress (http://wordpress.org) offers a number of optional computer software components known as plugins that can provide a range of copyright protection tools for the blogger, from displaying copyright ownership on the blog page to disabling visitors’ ability to copy text. However, regardless of level of copyright protection, using credible sources and conveying evidence-based information is as critical in the digital environment as it is in print, for the academic context. With the proper referencing, blogging can become a form of scholarship that is equally accessible by government officials, non-government organizations, industry representatives and consumers; and the blogger can benefit from the contributions of these groups. Although ensuring appropriate peer-review may be difficult to track in an open-access platform, Wardrip–Fruin (2009) demonstrated it was possible through his use of Grand Text Auto. Alternatively, the ideas and information compiled in a properly referenced blog can be assembled into a comprehensive article for peer review and publication in an academic journal.
Conversations about scholarly work that in the past have been restricted to faculty hallways, conferences, and through publication and response in subscription-based journals are now also occurring in openly accessible online spaces, opening up the dialogues to a broader audience as searchable, browsable resources. These online spaces can reveal the debates, arguments, and intellectual energy beneath the surface of polished, published scholarly work (Deitering and Gronemyer 2011). Researchers, regulators, industry representatives, and the public now have access to research structure and results that historically were known only to those that conducted the research. The increased transparency of the research/scholarship environment is beneficial in that it opens up the process of scholarly knowledge construction as it happens, for anyone within or beyond the academic community. This not only has the potential to enhance appreciation and understanding of the process; it also provides access for individuals and organizations that may otherwise be excluded from gaining these insights due to geographical or financial barriers.
Blogs and New Media in Teaching and Learning
In a report published by the National Association for State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Institutions (Kellogg Commission 1999) identified key characteristics of an engaged institution, including (1) it must be organized to respond to the needs of today’s students and tomorrow’s, not yesterday’s, and (2) it must enrich students’ experiences by bringing research and engagement into the curriculum and offering practical opportunities for students to prepare for the world they will enter. The Kellogg Commission described an engaged institution as one that is sympathetic to and productively involved with its community, however that community may be defined. Although its report focused on public institutions in the U.S., these key characteristics can be embraced by all institutions of higher education.
Students who have grown up with new media have skills and experiences that differ from the skills and experiences of many faculty members engaged in instruction (Betts and Glogoff 2005; Clarke and Clarke 2009). Barnes et al. (2007) proposed that blogs and other new media should be used to exploit the social networking skills students exhibit outside of class in order to reach digital-savvy students more effectively. By incorporating the use of new media into the framework of clearly defined pedagogical goals, educators can tap into the distinctive proficiencies of their students while ensuring focused learning and positive outcomes. Blogs and new media can be used as teaching tools, complementing other pedagogical strategies and techniques to encourage student participation, personal reflection, communication, and the development of critical thinking and writing skills (Joshi and Chugh 2008; Li 2009). For example, Lee (2010) reported on the use of blogs as out-of-class assignments for the development of learners’ language competence. Lee’s study involved advanced-level university students whose blogging was guided by assigned task-based activities that aimed to enhance learners’ abilities to use the target language rather than to acquire new language skills. Results indicated that regularly creating blog entries had a positive impact on learners’ writing fluency and that linguistic feedback on blog content by the instructor encouraged focus on language accuracy. George and Dellasega (2011) identified similarly positive results in two pilot studies of social media use by graduate-level, medical humanities students at Penn State College of Medicine. The authors noted that integrating social media tools into class activities led to greater student involvement in the learning process compared to corresponding classes where social media tools were not used. In particular, micro-blogging (via Twitter) and blogging were found to sustain and augment learning conversations, enabling real-time dialogue between instructors and students and making homework assignments a more dynamic experience. Micro-blogging also required students to succinctly phrase thoughts and ideas, which was viewed as a valuable skill for future doctors who will be expected to communicate with both brevity and substance in their professional lives. George and Dellasega (2011) concluded that social media technologies could augment and perhaps improve traditional education efforts in medical humanities while preparing students for a future in which social media would play a significant role in their profession.
Mellow and Woolis (2010) posited that technology will wield the most influence in higher education over the next decades. Technology is altering the relationship between knowledge and the knowledge provider, creating new environments for learning. They recommended that higher education leaders capitalize on the capacity of technology, consider new business models, and tap into the vast potential of virtual networks. One might consider the Carnegie-Knight News21 program (http://news21.com) to be an example of this type of innovative pedagogical approach. Headquartered at Arizona State University, News21 is a unique program in which journalism schools at universities across the U.S. together offer students the opportunity to work with professionals to blend in-depth reporting with digital storytelling, to create national investigative news packages. The program encourages students to incorporate new media into their learning activities. Blogging is also a required seminar component on which students are graded. The News21 content created by the students is distributed through traditional and new media and is protected under Creative Commons licenses.
Blogs and New Media for Outreach and Extension
In the U.S., the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established a system of extension services connected to the land-grant universities across the country in order to inform people about developments in agriculture, home economics, and related subjects. The Cooperative Extension System is now a nationwide, non-credit, educational network that provides practical, research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] 2011). Extension programs are not unique to the U.S., however. In the second half of the 19th Century, England’s adult education programs helped to extend the work of universities beyond campuses and into the neighboring communities. Similar advisory services were also developed in most European countries, although mainly through their respective ministries of agriculture (Swanson 2008).
Risk communication related to emerging issues can be a core component of extension and outreach activities that higher education institutions undertake. Traditional forms of extension involving risk communication include the publication of media releases and newsletters and the presentation of public lectures. These activities provide an important service to the public, but they can be difficult for the public to access. New media can supplement such activities by providing similar information in a format that can be quickly accessed with little effort on the part of the consumer. These forms of extension also provide a mechanism to receive feedback that can aid in the development of future extension resources (e.g., future blog posts).
Online news sources are particularly consulted in times of crisis (Glass 2002; Glik 2007). New media offer channels for rapid communication to the public about dangerous or catastrophic events. Within their extension portfolio, institutions of higher education can use these same opportunities to contribute to the online dialogue, providing evidence-based information and addressing specific concerns voiced by consumers and others. Quick, effective communication may also preempt the misinformation and exaggeration that can arise during times of crisis before the experts are able present their interpretation of the events or findings. Risk communicators and experts must become skilled with new media technologies in order to use them effectively for these situations (Berube et al. 2010).
Most news outlets and Internet sites lack peer review processes to ensure the integrity of the information provided to the public (Glik 2007). Blood (2002) asserted that the value of a blog lies in its ability to filter and contextualize news and information for its readers while providing commentary that aids readers in critiquing the news and information provided. Filtering can also be achieved through other new media tools such as Facebook and Twitter (O’Connor et al. 2010). The dissemination of information and ideas in this way mitigates public skepticism of risk communication by allowing consumers to build networks among groups determined to be trustworthy, weigh conflicts of interest in risk communication, and question decisions made by government and industry organizations and other social actors (Krimsky 2007).
New media can be useful for a broad range of other extension and outreach activities, whether targeting the general public or a specific audience. For example, veterinarians Scott Weese and Maureen Anderson of the University of Guelph, Canada, use their Worms and Germs blog (http://www.wormsandgermsblog.com/) to raise awareness about zoonotic diseases, animal health, and safe and healthy pet ownership. Another example is Opening Markets (http://gapsmallfarmsnc.wordpress.com/), where author Chapman and colleague Audrey Kreske blog about their extension project examining the barriers a group of small fresh produce farmers encounter as they work towards achieving USDA good agricultural practices certification; the intent is to provide resources and lessons learned for other farmers going through the same process.
Well-designed blog posts can provide rapid, relevant, evidence-based information framed in the context of current events that affect people’s lives (Powell et al. 2009). Context is an important element in extension and outreach; when the information is personal and practical, it becomes more memorable and effective at influencing behavior (Leventhal et al. 1965). Blog authors can also quickly respond to readers’ interests as identified through a review of public search strategies and comments made to previously posted blog content (Powell et al. 2009).
Higher education institutions can utilize new communication channels to create dialogue with consumers and other stakeholders around evidence-based risk information. Extension faculty members can use blogging and new media to expand their reach to new audiences who may not have been reached through the traditional channels of extension and outreach. Blogs and other new media can both inform and challenge decision-makers to reach the best conclusions regarding issues rapidly.
Blogs, New Media, and The Nature of Scholarship
Discovery: investigation and creation of new knowledge in a specific area or discipline;
Integration: making connections across disciplines and providing a wider context for individual discoveries;
Application: an engagement with the wider world outside academia, but still based on the scholar’s disciplinary knowledge and background; and
Teaching: a dynamic endeavor that builds bridges between the teacher's understanding and the student’s learning.
To expand the established reward system beyond the traditional scholarship of discovery, Boyer recommended that faculty assessment take into account a broad range of writing, especially in advancing the scholarship of application. He also advocated for the recognition of writing for non-specialists, which he described as popular writing, as a legitimate scholarly endeavor. New media, including blogging, are well suited for use in the scholarship of application; however, as we propose in this article, new media can have a role in all four types of scholarship.
Boyer’s work has been followed by further published discourse on the standards that guide and assign value to the tenets of faculty work, specifically research, teaching/mentoring and service, and the issue of whether or not the measures of evidence and criteria for evaluation of these endeavors should be expanded and clarified to capture the true breadth and diversity of scholarly activities (e.g., Glassick et al. 1997; Wise et al. 2002). Weiser and Houglum (1998) chronicled the experience by Oregon State University in modernizing its promotion and tenure guidelines, which resulted in the recognition that scholarship is “creative intellectual work that is validated by peers and communicated to others” (p. 1). This suggests that scholarship can occur in all areas of professorial work as well as outside of academia (Weiser and Houglum 1998). However, as Hardré and Cox (2009) have noted, systematic research on faculty work in institutions of higher education is not undertaken frequently; consequently, how broadly new media are being used by faculty members and the extent to which institutions recognize this use as a scholarly activity remain unclear.
The availability of user-friendly software to create and manage blog websites has contributed to the popularity of blogs and the vast number of authors emerging in recent years (British Broadcasting Corporation 2004). Because there are no required credentials to become a blogger, many blogs are filled with unverified information and claims (Alterman 2003). This should not be used as an argument for blogs and new media to be dismissed as scholarly endeavors. Scholarly communication is changing (Phillips 2010). The traditional peer-reviewed journal article is one method of contributing to the body of knowledge on a subject. Blog posts can serve the same function: to formulate and disseminate evidence-based information (Lindgren 2006). To address the gap in institutional recognition of online publication, including blogs, Downey (2011) argued that faculty members themselves should start intervening in the assessment process, demonstrating the real contributions new media make to furthering knowledge, contributing meaningful peer reviews to others’ online work, and soliciting or providing the letters of endorsement required for academic portfolios. This grassroots, crowd-sourced approach to improving recognition may take time; but it is a means by which the assessment of scholarly work carried out through new media can be incorporated into the established framework used to determine promotion and tenure at institutions of higher education.
Case Study: barfblog.com
We present the experience of the authors of this article at barfblog.com as a case study of the potential contribution of blogging to scholarly activities. We launched barfblog in May 2007 as a vehicle for the dissemination of research information and for public discourse on current and emerging food safety issues. Hosted at Kansas State University, the blog is maintained by Powell, Chapman, and affiliated researchers as part of their scholarly endeavors. Author Powell includes blogging within the general practice of extension and service carried out as a faculty member of Kansas State University. For author Chapman, the use of blogs in extension work is formally recognized within the faculty policy manual (North Carolina State University 2009).
The primary role of barfblog is to serve as a communication and outreach tool to the global community. Blog postings are evidence-based, citing primary (e.g., peer-reviewed journal articles) and secondary references where appropriate. To provide transparency, procedures used for gathering information and posting on barfblog are publicly available (http://bites.ksu.edu/about-bites). The design of the blog and individual posts have three distinct intentions: to entertain readers and encourage repeat visits, to increase awareness of evidence-based food safety information, and to respond to readers’ interests gathered through active analysis of public search strategies and comments to previous posts.
Blog posts convey food safety messages in the context of current events that affect lives of individuals along the farm-to-fork food chain, from producers to consumers. Content may be linked to a range of topics ranging from emerging research and foodborne illness outbreaks, to life events (e.g., pregnancy) and popular culture; this approach is supported by communications research that suggests relatable backgrounds and surprising content enhance the effectiveness of messages (Lordley 2007; Leventhal et al. 1965; Shannon 1948).
barfblog is also used to convey information about research undertaken by the researchers or to review and assess information published by others. For example, a blog posting on May 15, 2011 described the launch of Chapman’s Open Markets; and a link was included to a website that provided information and asked for comments on the project design and data collection tools. Blog posts about items in mainstream media related to blog authors’ areas of research, such as restaurant inspections, hand washing practice, and food safety culture, are frequently linked to peer-reviewed publications on these topics by the authors. Recently, blog posts from barfblog have been compiled and supplemented to form peer-reviewed book chapters and journal articles. To date, the use of barfblog as a formal educational tool has been limited although the blog occasionally features postings authored by graduate and undergraduate students.
barfblog has become a source of information for mainstream media, and its reach has been rapidly expanding. For example, a preliminary experiment, documented on barfblog, that evaluated the microwave-cooking instructions for ConAgra Food’s Banquet potpies at the height of an investigation into outbreak of salmonellosis linked to the potpies was recounted by one New York Times article (Martin 2007) within 24 hours of the blog posting. (The account of the experiment is available at http://barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu/2007/10/articles/food-safety-communication/cooking-a-frozen-pot-pie-in-a-microwave/). There have also been reports of information from barfblog posts having a role in the unfolding of current events. On February 27, 2008, an editorial article posted on barfblog compared the findings to that date by the Public Inquiry into the 2005 E. coli O157 outbreak in Wales to similar findings determined after the 1996 E. coli outbreak in Scotland (Pennington 2009). A Western Mail news story subsequently reported that solicitors cited the editorial from barfblog on March 10, 2008, at the Public Inquiry into the 2005 Wales outbreak and credited the editorial with drawing out the parallels to the 1996 outbreak in Scotland (Brindley 2008).
Referenced commentary on barfblog.com during the Maple Leaf Foods of Canada listeria in deli meats outbreak of 2008, which sickened 57 people and killed 23, was widely incorporated into media coverage at the time and has subsequently been compiled into a book chapter for future publication. An investigation by Weatherill (2009) into the outbreak specifically identified the need for cultures of food safety at food processing companies, calling for “actions, not words” (p. xiv) – a theme that was consistent during barfblog posts of 2008 during the outbreak.
barfblog has a large readership; in the first six months of 2011 (January 1 – June 30), it had more than 87,000 unique visitors from 178 countries and territories around the world. The monthly number of visitors to the blog tends to spike when information is posted related to emerging foodborne illness outbreaks, such as during an outbreak of E. coli O104 illness attributed to the consumption of fenugreek sprouts in Germany (May 2011 had 20,226 visitors), which illustrates its utility as a medium for risk communication. We are pursuing further research to track and understand the access and use of barfblog posts by blog visitors.
Researchers and extension personnel at institutions of higher education, and particularly publicly-funded higher education institutions, should be encouraged to utilize new media including blogs to strengthen relations with public stakeholders and allow interested individuals to interact directly with subject matter experts around research. These relationships can be strengthened proactively prior to crises or emerging risk events such as foodborne illness outbreaks or natural disasters. While being more transparent and nimble with results does not replace the rigors of peer-review, blogs and other online communication forums do represent an additional mechanism for the rapid sharing of ideas, methodologies, and research findings. Disclosure should be provided on the procedures used for sourcing and conveying information, and references should be cited when appropriate.
As an outreach vehicle, blogs with well-structured messages and delivery mediums reach beyond the uni-directional information provision typical of many scholarly communication efforts to connect with readers and compel them to look critically at sources of information; to search out more information; and, ultimately, to influence practices. The flexibility and ease of publishing a blog allows for greater engagement between researchers, stakeholders, and the public through rapid dissemination of commentary and analysis on research. The accessibility of new media, such as blogs, helps create a multi-way dialogue and exchange of ideas so as to complement traditional communication avenues used in research, teaching, learning, and extension work carried out at higher education institutions.
Recognition and reward frameworks used at higher education institutions to evaluate scholarly activities have been structured around traditional forms of academic publication. New media, such as blogging, provide new channels for conducting and disseminating scholarly work. We suggest that ample evidence can be provided for new media practice and products to be considered for promotion and tenure within an academic portfolio.