Punking practice-led research

It has frustrated me for a rather long time now that in general research is about writing about doing stuff, cf actually doing stuff. Obviously things are done that generate data, but the focus is generally not on building a ‘product’ as the output itself – you can build something, but only the writing about it is counted as research output. This frustration came to a head recently as I just could not justify fitting what I want to do with the University of Awesome into a traditional 50K word model. I’ve always been about ‘doing things’ and can’t reconcile this with traditional research output, however open, fluid and web-based that is.

Enter the practice-led research model. In HDR terms this currently manifests itself as PhDs/Masters in Creative Practice or similar, and is offered almost exclusively in creative arts disciplines – art, design, music, theatre, creative writing etc. The model focuses on ‘researcher as practitioner’ and considers the creation of a ‘product’ the majority research output. For HDR purposes an accompanying exegesis is required, but this is effectively a reflection on the building process and relevant issues. It’s an excellent model that focuses on ‘doing’ – building and creating things – but until recently has been a bit of a sideline model of research (this year is the first year ERA has acknowledged the products of practice-led research as ‘countable’ output).

But. It is COMPLETE MADNESS that creative arts seem to be the only disciplines in which this is the norm. On doing a quick lit trawl, it seems that there is virtually no precedent for products themselves to be considered research output in other disciplines. Everywhere else, we focus on the ‘writing about’ being the research output. Any form of doing isn’t part of the word count and isn’t published. It’s indicative of an academic culture of favouring observation over action (which tbh doesn’t win us any fans outside of academia). It’s an issue in HDR and it’s an issue in academic publishing, and it needs to change.

So – I’m calling punk. Practice-led research should be a norm, not an exception in every discipline. Ditching word count and valuing creation gives us all sorts of possibilities to play around with. It’s where I’ve been going with the University of Awesome – a change in the game of edu research. It’s not about collecting the data any more – it’s about building it.

Some of the best learning I’ve done

I graduated the other day. It’s a qualification I’ve been working towards for the last 18 months. Very few teachers or academics achieve this qualification – let me tell you a little about it.

It’s a fairly affordable course. It’s not HECS-supported but after the initial $100 to purchase the courseware it’s only cost me around $13 a month, depending on the US dollar. It’s open to anyone and the application process was very simple.

The course direction itself was entirely up to me. I was able to design my own learning path and outcomes. The workload was entirely up to me also, but I found I was so engaged in the material I willingly spent at least an hour working on it most days. I was able to work on what was most interesting and relevant to me at any given time. This was the same for every other student in the course – it was entirely student-driven and the instructors were students also. There was no syllabus, no framework, no predefined outcomes and no pressure do do things in a certain manner.

The course was completely hands-on. A theoretical component was available if I wanted to engage in it, but this still was required to be backed up by practice. All outcomes were achieved by doing, not writing about doing. Those who only wrote about the material without engaging in practice found their status with other students dropped and they weren’t able to complete the course.

There were no set readings, but whenever I felt I needed to do some research, there was a rich wealth of information available – all written by students, many of whom had become experts in their discipline. All this literature was freely available online and written in accessible language.

There were opportunities for me to work alone or in groups. Some projects allowed me to work with a group of over 20 people to achieve outcomes, sometimes I worked with only one or two others and often I worked alone. All groups were student-assigned and purpose-designed, and communication in groups was always efficient. I also had the opportunity to compete against other students as a way to hone my skills. Collaboration was such a powerful part of this course.

The course cohort was an incredibly diverse range of people, and all of them contributed to my learning as effective teachers. Many of these ‘teachers’ were children, and many again were much older than me. All had come to the course from an incredibly wide range of backgrounds and there was always someone with a different perspective to learn from.

All my work in the course was publicly visible – anyone could track my progress via the course website. I could easily talk with, seek advice from and share successes with people, whether they were taking the course or not. There was always someone to provide support if I needed it.

I learned so much doing the course. I developed a very diverse skillset and learned much about myself as well as the course material. And while I may have finished this course, there are still hundreds of opportunities for postgraduate learning and gaining higher qualifications.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a qualification I can ever put on my CV. Most people tell me it was a complete waste of time. Neither DEEWR or NSWIT will recognise it as professional development, nor can I use it on a promotion application. None of the skills I’ve developed are recognised as valid. Which is a shame, because the courses that I *can* use for the this have few or none of the features I’ve described above.

What is this qualification? Level 85 in World of Warcraft. It’s not a Masters, it’s not a PhD, but it is some of the most valuable learning I’ve ever done and an achievement I’m quite proud of. With any luck, one day the rest of the world will recognise this.

Chasing unicorns – adventures in academic publishing

I’ve recently proposed to the eResearch committee an agenda item on investigating non-traditional online publishing (blogs, social media, self-published eBooks, curation etc etc) as valid research output. And by valid I mean recognised by the powers that dole out the money. I’ve previously written a paper on alternative academic publishing as a conceptual issue, but didn’t address the fact that the government will not recognise these alternative forms either in the ERA or via DEEWR funding ticks – which is, of course, a whole other kettle of fish. It’s an issue I’ve talked about with several people previously (@thesiswhisperer, @gsyoung et al) but haven’t followed through on until now. While I still haven’t decided if I am an idiot for both deciding to address this from an administrative POV and persevere with a traditional committee, it’s at any rate something that needs to be done before we all die in a quagmire of journal articles. The following is my outline of the issue as it currently stands.

Non-traditional outputs

The 2012 ERA has, for the first time, allowed that some disciplines may count ‘non-traditional research outputs’. The allowable types are listed as the following:

  • Original Creative Works;
  • Live Performance of Creative Works;
  • Recorded/Rendered Creative Works; and
  • Curated or Produced Substantial Public Exhibitions and Events.

Being married to a musician, composer and sometimes-academic, I am the first one to say that it is fabulous that creative works are finally being recognised as valid research output (at least, providing that one submits an official ERA form explaining in depth how the work meets the criteria for research…). However, for the purposes of those of us who work in non-creative-arts disciplines, there is a rather big oversight here. The ERA seems to define ‘non-traditional’ in terms of format rather than something more traditional in format (ie text) that is published in a non-traditional medium (ie most of the things the internet facilitates – see my aforementioned paper for more elaboration on this). This is the type of recognition that needs to happen in order for, say, blogging, to be recognised as valid research activity. I’m holding out some hope that a precedent of the one will aid a case for the other, but at this point in time the only acceptable form of online text is the closed ‘container’ of text published via traditional publication avenues.

Peer Review

To be acknowledged by both ERA and DEEWR as research output, the output must have gone through ‘expert peer review’ in a standardised form. While I get that external validation is necessary to ensure that nutters don’t go around publishing whatever they like, I have three problems with this. The first is ‘expert’, the second is ‘peer’ and the third is ‘review’. ‘Expert’ is nice in theory but how many times does it actually mean ‘a colleague of the editor/organiser’ or ‘somebody in a roughly similar discipline area’? The notion of ‘peer’ seems to me quite limited since it assumes that only other academics are worthy to undertake review, and the concept of ‘review’ itself can be slanted in infinite ways by the experience, bias, inclination and available time of the reviewer. If we are going to propose that open online forms of text be considered output, we also need to propose that open, crowdsourced peer review (which is standard in these media) be considered to satisfy the peer review condition. This is likely a tougher sell than the point above since we as a culture have an obsession with qualification, ivory towers (and thus no individual accountability) and the textbook concept of ‘expert’.

Academic writing

This, I think, is the most significant issue of the three. Currently, the only form of text that is accepted as research output is academic text – a book, chapter or article written in academic language using an accepted citation format (although, the ERA website does make reference to how things like public policy reports may be counted under the new ‘non-traditional outputs’ allowance). But if we consider that the fundamental point of research is dissemination, that the internet is one of the best ways to facilitate this, and that academic text is one of the least effective forms of online text (these were the central points to my above paper), then we have to start arguing that the concept of academic writing needs to diversify. Because online text often functions more as a conversation than a standalone document, where does that conversation fit into research dissemination? In this regard, we’re verging more into the ‘creative work’ territory but it’s a long bow to draw for an audience that worships at the altar of APA 5th (thanks @pcoutas and @cfellows65536 for the twitsparring on this point). As an addenda it’s interesting to note that APA style guidelines do make provisions for the citations of social media and other online text, but that citation is subsequently not recognised when tracking research impact.


So there are the current issues I see that need to be conquered in the quest for the unicorn of research recognition. Maybe I’m nuts. Taking on conceptual issues is one thing, but actually getting administrative recognition is another entirely. For those of you who feel like some fun reading (!), you can peruse the below:




Learning to suck and work hard (or, why PvP will make you a better academic)

I’ve recently thrown myself into the world of PvP (for non-Warcrafters, player-vs-player). I’ve played WoW for over a year now and basically ignored PvP, preferring to stick to PvE (or player-vs-everyone, or playing against game characters rather than real people). Game characters, while challenging, are ultimately predictable and consistent. The same type of mob is always going to react in the same way. Newbs like predictable and consistent. Other players are a whole different kettle of fish. Real people can become skilled and read Elitist Jerks and buy gaming keyboards and mice. Real people have strategies. Real people can invest way more time than I have in learning how to ‘play’ a class. They’re unpredictable and inconsistent. Taking them on is scary stuff. And also one of the most useful things I’ve done.

My thoughts on this crystallised after reading this excellent post on failure and learning to suck, and this article on how games transfer phenomenon can improve your reality. Games, and specifically PvP in MMORPGs like WoW (apologies for the death by acronym), offer low-risk environments in which to develop critical skills. Consider the following:

  • In PvP, and particularly battlegrounds, you fail. A lot. Publicly. This is in stark contrast to PvE questing, where you can suck as much as you like for as long as you like without anybody ever knowing about it. If you suck in a battleground, you will likely be told, in no uncertain terms. It may be from some hack kid with nothing better to do, but it’s likely to be from someone who has spent a long time becoming skilled at PvP. And while it sucks to get capslocked at because you’ve died for the 900th time, it’s likely to be the clearest, most direct and helpful feedback you will get. As an example, the first time I took my DK in a battleground and was unceremoniously slaughtered, I garnered the comment ‘dude, your a faceroll, any DK can pwn this bracket, don’t act like it takes skill’. This resulted in: rage quit, cup of tea, google ‘faceroll’, link party, learn much more efficient rotation & keybindings, try again. And it worked. Next time I clocked a measurable improvement in my stats.
  • Nobody is going to hand you an instruction manual – your only option is to suck, get slammed and get better. No amount of reading WoWWiki will prepare you for what actually goes on in a PvP situation. You get better by doing, not by reading and writing about doing. Reading and writing help, but until you put it into practice it’s effectively meaningless.
  • Despite the above, it’s completely ok to suck, as long as you’re willing to learn. Some of the best BGs I’ve done were when I admitted in the chat that I was a newb. There will always be sympathetic people willing to help you out, and there is always more respect to be gained from admitting you don’t know and then learning than pretending you do know and failing to recognise that you’re clueless.
  • There’s much to be learned by observation. Even a seemingly innocuous comment about the hopelessness of the other faction can go a long way towards developing your own strategy. Everything I know about defense I learned from watching the Horde get rofled at.
  • You have to learn lots, and you have to learn it fast. And it’s hard work. When the other team are zerging you en masse and you’ve got no healer, there’s no time to sit around and think ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘it’s too hard’ or ‘someone else will take care of it’.
  • Sometimes, you’re going to get stuck in a crap group where everyone’s out to get the most honor points rather than work as a team, or get camped by people who’d rather just kill you than achieve the objectives.


You should, by this stage, be recognising a number of significant correlations between the above and academic practice. How many of us can say we improved, immediately and measurably, from blind peer review of our papers or from performance reviews? How many of us are willing to fail publicly? How many times do we see research not put into practice, or listen to people who appear to get paid quite a lot to completely misunderstand fundamental concepts? How many of us are willing to write blog posts saying we suck at our jobs? Many of the issues that plague research and academia (and probably most other industries) are neatly and directly addressed by PvP mechanics, with the added bonus of being a low-risk environment with good motivational design. I don’t know about you, but that to me blows most other professional development activities out of the water.


I’m willing to bet if more of us signed up for PvP instead of PD, universities would be better places. I’m not one for resolutions, but my challenge for you this year is to take on some PvPD. Take on something scary and learn to suck at it. And then, learn to get better.


NB: I’ve outlined the above in relation to WoW, simply because that’s my current thing, but the same benefits could be got from playing Words with people who are not your friends, racing random people in Mario Kart, going to a bridge tournament or joining a soccer team.


Little Red PLNs

A few times now I have been approached by people who know I’m active in an online community, and have asked if I can put the word out for various things (get research participants, source staff etc). I’ve said yes, up to this point, because it’s easy for me and I know you guys (making some assumptions about readership here) are awesome at responding, but it has me wondering – who has what rights to whose PLN?

I’ve spent a lot of time building my network, and I haven’t done it just by following a bunch of people and spamming them with links or whatnot. It takes time and interaction, as well as action, to grind your rep and to find the like-minded niche into which you fit. I’ve done it because we all get awesome benefit out of it. But what do you do when someone, who for all intents and purposes is well-intentioned, wants to get the benefits (communicate to wide audience) without putting in the months of work to create their own network (hence the title of this post, which refers to the children’s story The Little Red Hen and not a communist doctrine)? Part of me thinks that this kind of co-opting is lazy at best and underhanded at worst. The other part of me, the part that fully supports openness and collaboration, thinks it’s harmless and and doesn’t mind helping out.

I’m not sure where I sit on this. It’s not as if a PLN is something I ‘own’, but I am deeply wary of those who want to benefit from the work of others without putting in effort themselves. As far as I can see I have a few choices:

  • Continue to say yes to such requests and just feel a bit icky about it;
  • Say no and just feel a bit icky about it;
  • Become a PLN evangelist and convert everyone to the ways of teh Twitter

Option 3 is obviously the ‘teach a man to fish’ option, but I despise anything ‘evangelist’ and would rather save my good will & excitement for groups who will genuinely use online networking well and authentically (#pstn, for instance).

S0 – where do you stand? Burn the co-opters, or share the love?

Kickstarting funding models

For a long time now I have thought the grant system is broken. Months are spent writing grant applications that may or may not be approved for reasons that may or may not have to do with merit. Entire positions are created for the purpose of grant-writing, and career kudos is based on how many grants you can win (and the fact that ‘win’ is the verb of choice speaks volumes about the process). Grants are judged by a few people from the target funding body, and your application hinges on how well you have worded it to suit these people. Over and over again we see ridiculous projects continue to be funded because people can play the grant system well.

My solution for this to date has simply been ‘not apply for grants’ – my ‘start now, no funding required’ ethos means I struggle to design things I’d need 50K for anyway. Non-participation isn’t really helping do to anything about the system, though. What would happen if we actually started to redesign the grant system?

Enter Kickstarter. It’s a project that has intrigued me for a while now – essentially, anyone at all can propose a project that is then thrown open to the community, who can choose to contribute to funding via micro-grants – pledges that can be as little as a dollar or as big as thousands, whatever a donor feels the project is worth and they can afford. This strikes me as being a much more valuable method. For one, someone seeking funding is required to sell their project to the masses, rather than just a few with specific agendas. It’s also a much more organic, immediate and sustainable funding model (because, unlike, say, the ALTC, the government can’t axe funding from individuals).

One of the most interesting possibilities here is the notion of social responsibility. If you are funded by masses of individuals who all have a small but significant intellectual/emotional interest as well as financial stake in your project, it’s a very different beast to being funded by a funding body, who specify administrative conditions for the grant but have no real connection to your work and give you no emotional imperative. Like peer review, I don’t think anyone is benefitting from the anonymous judgement of a few, cf the identifiable judgement of many. Which would you prefer – seeing a project funded for thousands that you had no say in, or a project you believe in that you had personally contributed to – even as little as $10? Which would be the bigger achievement for having ‘won’?

I think 2012 for me will involve investigating Kickstarter for funding – perhaps the University of Awesome could use a similarly awesome funding model. The more of us that jump on alternative bandwagons the better, as far as I’m concerned.


Thesis as dungeon? Achievement unlocked.

via @kerryjcom

Making no apologies for the fact this is one of those clever but slightly painful metaphor posts. For a while now the idea of working in academia being PvP has been tossed around the Twitterverse, and today I found myself in discussion with @jonpowles comparing a thesis to a dungeon run. In the interests of expanding on this excellent topic, below is what happens when queueing for ‘thesis’ in the dungeon finder.


My role: DPS/offtank (druid). Most of the time I’m quite happy to stand back and get on with the art of dealing damage from a distance, but when necessary I’m not afraid to pop bear form and start tanking the system.

Dungeon run time: 2-3 years

Minimum level: 70 (bachelor’s) and minimum rep of Honored with the appropriate institution.

Mobs: [80-85] elites, but most are ranged DPS and can be conquered with effective use of interrupts and melee tactics.

First boss: Overlord Dean <Research Services>. Low chance of dropping the rare item [Option to submit as online site]. A tricky pull that requires a lv 85 supervisor to tank.

Second boss: Coc <HDR>. A non-elite boss that is necessary to solo. 90% drop rate of [Candidature confirmed]. Not difficult to solo at lv 70 with proper gearing, but unlocks the quest chain beginning with [70]Literature Review, so is necessary to take this boss down before proceeding.

Following this is a series of quests that must be completed before summoning the final boss. Necessary quest chains begin with [70]Literature Review (available from any supervisor NPC) and [75]Data Collection (from quest-giver Methodolus), but it’s also recommended to take the optional quest [80]Publication (available from any Journal NPC after completing the [79]Chapters quest) as this gives the epic reward [Status] and raises reputation to Revered.

Final boss: Submissior <HDR>. An 85 elite extremely difficult pull. A competent healer and offhealer are necessary for this long fight, and caster DPS are highly likely to run out of mana if not managed properly. As a DPS druid it’s recommended to switch to feral DPS in order to consume rage as a resource when running low on mana. If all DPS hit OOM a wipe is inevitable and will likely result in a rage quit. However, a competent group will be able to conquer this boss. 75% chance of dropping the legendary item [Floppy Bonnet] and unlocks the achievement [Doctorate].

Your turn – what’s your academic dungeon run?