Open Academia: Embracing interaction over transmission

Victoria Betton made some excellent observations earlier this week on the challenges of straddling the open world of social networking with the formal and closed traditions of academia. One point, drawn from David Price’s book on open learning and sharing, was the observation that most schools and workplaces adopt ’transmissive teaching’, a top down, linear approach to depositing facts into peoples brains – giving the lecture from the front of the room without responding to the audience, or even inviting any response. By contrast, social media and open working encourage and require dialogue and interaction. It’s a two way process, and both parties give and receive (with often the really neat stuff happening somewhere in the middle).

That word ’transmission’ really stuck out for me – the one-way only route of ‘I send something, you receive it’. I think ’transmission’ sums up how quite a few Universities currently use social media – they transmit their achievements, in press releases or latest papers, and interaction with anyone except their own or other research groups is rare. I think this is partly a resource and training issue. I think genuinely interacting on twitter, particularly if tasked with representing an official organisation (who is most likely your employer), can be complex and time consuming. Most people tasked with manning the ‘official’ twitter feed aren’t given any formal support or training on how to do this, and I suspect most are simply given the task of transmitting in any case. I think this is how many universities view this kind of public engagement – we announce stuff, you pay attention. We tell you stuff, you listen. Of course, this isn’t actually how twitter works, and I don’t think it should be how public engagement works either.

There's a somewhat catty attitude on display in academia's approach to hearing service user voices.

There’s a somewhat catty attitude on display in academia’s approach to hearing service user voices.

This transmission approach I think is also evident though in how some academics approach PPI (patient and public involvement), where PPI is about them telling service users something, and opportunities for real two-way interaction and collaboration seem minimal. This attitude doesn’t recognise that it might be us who needs to do the learning.

Don’t give up on us just yet though. There is a move toward openness in academia, with the #openaccess movement and the #alltrials initiative being prominent examples. It strikes me though that both of these relate to our findings being made more open, and calls for the process of what we do to be more open are less prominent. For me, this is where PPI sits – it’s about opening up that research process, what we do, how and why. It’s about sharing those processes with service users, inviting them to join in and not just to listen. It’s about being transparent about our decisions and priorities, and letting service users themselves teach us about what their priorities might be. This has to be an interaction, and ideally a collaboration.

The irony here is that of all the disciplines that could be open, academia and scientists in particular should be leading the way. One of the core principles of science, and to me one of its most appealing, is transparency. Science is the rejection of authority – you do not tell people something is true, you demonstrate it, you show your working, you open it up to debate. Looked at in that way, those who call for greater interaction with users are the ‘pure scientists’ in comparison to those who think we should keep our doors closed.

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