Monday, September 8, 2014

How Do We Know When Educational Research Matters?

by Amelia Marcetti Topper, doctoral candidate in Arizona State University’s Education Policy and Evaluation program; Adai Tefera, Fulton Research Specialist for Arizona State University’s edXchange initiative; and, Gustavo E. Fischman, professor in Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and director of the edXchange initiative. 

Unless you spent this spring sequestered in your office fervidly transforming your research results into acceptable scholarly languages on the off chance they will be published in some High Impact Factor journal, you are probably quite familiar with the academic debate following Nicholas Kristof’s lamentation over the state of the (university) professoriate. According to Kristof, and unfortunately many people both inside and outside academe’s Ivory Tower, academics have been accused of disconnecting themselves from public life and everyday reality, opting to while away their days in monastic solitude. Their marginalization and irrelevance has somehow both been done to them and is also their fault; academia’s very own Stockholm syndrome driven by the “publish or perish” tenure system and the overspecialization of academic disciplines (or so it goes).

Many scholars, in particular, have taken Kristof to task for his simplistic portrayal of academia as “a kingdom of isolation,” to quote the lyrics of Disney’s latest musical earworm. Commentaries in Inside Higher Ed by Allison Kimmich, Gwendolyn Beetham, and Lee Skallerup Bessette have highlighted the resource challenges institutions face in promoting engagement, the particular challenges that women and other marginalized groups confront in having their voices taken seriously, and the often discounted contribution of adjunct faculty and faculty at less-selective two- and four-year institutions. Likewise, another piece by Laura S. Logan and Stephanie Furrer highlighted the important, overlooked work that faculty do in classrooms with their students, often connecting research and reality in very real and impactful ways – sentiments shared by Carol Emberton in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  These articles, along with further rebuttals by professor/blogger Corey Robin, professor/Washington Post commentator Erik Voeten, and Gustavo Fischman and Adai Tefera’s Teachers College Record commentary, among others, speak to a tension over the role of faculty and universities in society that can be traced back to Aristotle, Plato, and Immanuel Kant.

Along similar lines, Adrianna Kezar’s recent blog post asks us in the higher education research community to consider our relationship to the academic community, and the ways in which we – as researchers, as scholars – serve and support our colleagues and students. We would like to add to her thoughts on this topic the importance of finding new ways to collaborate and communicate with both academics (at all levels and in all disciplines) and non-academics (in all positions of society) alike, which is particularly appropriate as we embark on a new academic year.

Namely, we are suggesting to move this debate about the role of the academic as a public intellectual one step forward, from whether or not institutionally based researchers are engaging in the dissemination and wider discussion of their research to how we can recognize and assess the diverse ways in which research, and other types of knowledge, are being produced and used. As the commentators mentioned above passionately (and persuasively) argue, the approximately 1.5 million tenure and non-tenure track faculty members teaching and researching at the nation’s 4,726 public and private colleges and universities contribute to public life in multiple and varied ways that often go unsung – or, at least, unmeasured by metrics of research quality that are limited to article “importance” (i.e., Journal Impact Factor [JIF]). While we are writing from the perspective of faculty, researchers, and students of education and education policy at the largest public research university in the country, what we propose here is relevant across disciplines and institutional contexts. Namely, we argue that it is not just a question of whether our research is intelligible (although that is extremely important), it is also a question of how research can be better accessed, whom it matters to and why, and how it is being discussed, used, and eventually applied.

Knowledge mobilization (KM) is a term used to describe strategies that seek to connect research, policy, and practice by bringing formal (e.g., empirical research) and informal (e.g., personal experience) knowledge to a broader audience. The irony of tackling our culture of arcane unintelligibility with such an academic term is not lost on us. We grant you an eye roll, or two, and invite you to keep reading. For more than 50 years this concept (as it goes by other names in other fields) aims to increase access, impact, and usability of research through multi-dimensional, networked, and interactive approaches that engage a wide range of stakeholders in a open, on-going dialogue (not just an article in leading inter/national newspaper or a TV guest spot). While this description in itself might warrant an exasperated sigh, here are two specific examples of what KM strategies look like in practice:

Accessibility of content. One of the largest barriers to the sharing of research knowledge are the exorbitant article fees required by many scholarly journals. Open access policies, the use of Open Access Repositories, and Open Access journals, such as the journals we work on – Current Issues in Education, Education Review, and Education Policy Analysis Archives – provide free, public access to articles, book reviews, commentaries, and video commentaries. Such approaches offer university-sponsored journals a way to make research more accessible and impactful to the wider public, especially when they have a strong social media presence.

Better assessment of “impact.” Access to content needs to be complemented with more comprehensive ways of determining how research knowledge is used and, optimistically, to what extent it makes a difference in how people understand and navigate the world. In the humanities and social sciences, scholarly “impact” has traditionally been narrowly interpreted through bibliometrics – e.g., citation counts and (now) article downloads. While the limitations of using number of cites as an exclusive measure of impact are well known, researchers often seen social media outlets (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) as a virtual popularity contest instead of alternative and valid ways to understand the who and how of research impact. Nevertheless, more and more scholars are using these outlets to reach a wider audience beyond the regular “customers” of research journals in education (for Kristof, these would be the very same professors who only see the light of day while in transport to their next obscure academic conference). Altmetrics are one strategy for obtaining a firmer, and (we argue) fairer, understanding of the impact of educational research, as explained by Juan Pablo Alperin: “Altmetrics are captured from the Web (i.e., social media, blogs, Wikipedia), and thus are (somewhat) more democratic – one reader, one vote. More precisely: one reader, several potential votes. Unlike citations, which can only be counted if the citing document is in a select group of journals, altmetrics are counted regardless of where in the world they are originated, with one important consequence: they open the possibility of tracking impact in new segments, both within and beyond the academy.”

We believe that KM strategies, such as the ones that we mention in this article, as well as others, are a viable, substantial improvement and complement to the hierarchical, unimodal model traditionally used to communicate research findings. Researchers at Arizona State University’s new edXchange initiative, for which we also contribute to, are trying to flatten the world of educational research dissemination and use by exploring different ways to embrace KM strategies. edXchange’s goal of mobilizing research knowledge for the common good requires making educational research more accessible by fostering exchanges (e.g., dialogues, visits, consultations, and interactions) between scholars, educators, policymakers, journalists, social entrepreneurs, civic organizations, and concerned individuals to develop solutions that answer today's most pressing educational challenges.

Although the initiative is only a year old, it has already begun the work of engaging in interdisciplinary research-based collaborations to mobilize research relevant knowledge through: a) its Saturday Scholars series, which features TED Talk-style presentations aimed at fostering dialogue with non-specialized audiences around the results of research projects conducted by middle school students, teachers, superintendents and foundation leaders, and scholars during the academic year; b) the creation of the Scholarly Communications Group, to support the journals sponsored by ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and complementing the publication of research articles with video-commentaries, translations, and altmetrics for assessing impact; and, c) with support from the Spencer Foundation, over the next year edXchange will be studying how and when tenure and non-tenure track faculty members at three research universities engage in knowledge mobilization strategies.

As those of use who work in higher education know, faculty members at all types of institutions have been contributing to the intellectual life of the country for more than 400 years through their engagement with students, collaborations and partnerships with their local communities, and the sharing of their research in both academic and nonacademic settings and venues. KM strategies and initiatives, like the ones explored in this commentary, can help us capture and better share with the public the many ways college and university faculty members connect and collaborate with their local, regional, and national communities.

Amelia Marcetti Topper is a doctoral candidate in Arizona State University’s Education Policy and Evaluation program, specializing in higher education. Adai Tefera is a Fulton Research Specialist for Arizona State University’s edXchange initiative, specializing in knowledge mobilization and equity in educational policy. Gustavo E. Fischman is a professor in Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and director of the edXchange initiative. edXchange welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with students, teachers, schools, foundations, and communities on educational research. Share your ideas with us at, @edxchange.

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