The development of academics’ digital and social media skills is being hampered by poorly pitched and inappropriate training methods, according to a University of Cambridge academic who is running a programme that encourages researchers to blog.
Helen Webster, research associate at Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (Crassh), has taken a tool designed to introduce librarians to new technologies and adapted it to help give reluctant academics the opportunity to hone their digital skills.
It works by giving participants a topic of inspiration, such as “networking”, before they are directed to related online tools that can be used to explore it - such as micro-blogging site Twitter or professional social networking site LinkedIn. They must then publish their own blog about their experiences.
“It’s aimed at people who are a bit curious or sceptical about blogging, but also at those who are quite keen to get involved but had never done so,” Dr Webster told Times Higher Education.
“Initially, many opted to keep their blogs private and anonymous, but when others on the programme started to get responses, they felt like they were missing out.”
She added that in her view, social media skills development is important, but “there are issues with many of the current approaches to training”.
“Often, it’s not interprofessional and offers limited expertise in digital skills, or it isn’t informed by the kinds of things that researchers need to do in different disciplines or stages of their career,” she said.
Dr Webster said that reluctant academic bloggers were unlikely to embrace the medium unless encouraged to do so by their peers.
“There is a lot of training … but it isn’t targeted at academics. It often comes from other professions such as marketing,” she said. “A researcher might say: ‘I don’t need Twitter’ or ‘I don’t need to blog; why would I need it?’ A fellow researcher who is active in those areas will be able to talk to them more easily.”
At the other end of the scale, Dr Webster found that some academics had embraced social media with such gusto that they had failed to consider issues such as ethics, personal branding or intellectual property.
“Because this field changes so fast, we’re focusing not primarily on specific platforms such as Twitter, but on helping [participants] to develop a critical framework and awareness of the issues when evaluating future social media tools,” she said.
The programme currently targets early career researchers, although more senior Cambridge academics have also asked to take part.
Inaccessible and inappropriate training is not the only reason why academics turn down the opportunity to blog.
Martin Paul Eve, a prolific blogger and associate tutor in English at the University of Sussex, said the environment within the academy can put off would-be online diarists.
“Resistance to blogging in the academy is a product…of an extremely conservative environment coupled with a lack of high-profile proponents with traditional publication records,” he said.
“Unless those with substantial and promising traditional publication records see value, it seems that we might end up with a…tiered structure: those who can’t publish, blog. And that shouldn’t be the case.”