Cat with one side’s paws on window; other side’s paws on window ledge; view of vehicles on streets in background
08
Oct
2015

The Resident Web and Its Impact on the Academy

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Written by and
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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Katheryn Wright
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Tightrope walker cat” by José Manuel Ríos Valiente; CC BY-ND 2.0

Introduction

Today scholars walk a difficult line when choosing how much time to spend gaining traction within their institutions or growing a reputation online. In many cases these approaches can build on one another; for example, one can gain more citations for papers by promoting them via Social Media networks. Nevertheless, while individuals who are visible online may become influential in their field, they can struggle to quantify this in a form which their institution can respond to. They can also find that the flexibility of time and place which the Web affords does not bring freedom or balance, but simply pushes them to work outside of their contracted hours as they struggle to stay in the socio-intellectual flow (as described in Bonnie Stewart’s scholarship as a techno-cultural system).

On the Web, there is a close coupling between the individual, their persona and the information they consume and produce. This stands in stark contrast to the traditional discipline of academic writing and publishing, which requires the extraction of self, even as the credibility and status of the author is still paramount. When we talk about content, therefore, we are also talking about identity. The Web is breaking down the academy’s desire — and ability — to present these as distinct. Content and identity have always flowed into each other, and this is only becoming more the case on Social Media where the root organising principle promotes the person or identity as constructed by content, shifting the emphasis, as Lawrie Phipps points out, from institution to individual.

Networked practices such as blogging, social media use, and participation in digital communities provide an opportunity for individuals to make their identity broadly visible without the mediation of traditional publishers or their institution. These modes on online engagement have been described as Resident in that they involve the individual being present, or residing, to a certain extent online. This is in contrast to Visitor modes of engagement where the individual leaves no online social trace. These new, Resident, forms of agency and online participation are repositioning institutions within a larger, more open, knowledge production landscape. Individuals are increasingly aware, via the opportunities provided by Resident practices on the web, that they do not have to sacrifice as much personal agency to the institution to gain professional credibility as they might have done in a pre-Web era.

The Resident Web

The potential for connectedness, generated by the practices and places of the Resident Web has created a situation whereby individuals can now consider how to accrue traditional institutional and/or online currency, both of which can lead to forms of credibility. The close coupling of content and identity, and the extent to which that coupling is visible, is the heart of what makes online currency distinct. We need to recognize that the Web is a place where people express their identity/personae to build social/professional networks. When someone is followed on Twitter, it can be as much for the the way they behave — how they project character and a kind of persona — as it is for the information they can provide. In fact, the persona someone projects on Twitter can influence the extent to which what they have to say, or the information they highlight via tweets and retweets, is valued by their followers. It is the difference between “I follow X on social media” and “I read X’s article in that prestigious journal.”

Cristina Costa points to the networked web as a catalyst for change in scholarly communication, the formation of scholarly networks, and ultimately, the practice of academia. New forms of scholarly communication and networking, manifested as digital tools, practices, and places such as blogs and Twitter, create a tension between the struggle to establish one’s bona-fides in traditional ways, and taking advantages of the benefits of new modes of credibility, many of which are expressed via the Web.

In some senses Resident practices online engender new ways of being an academic rather than simply doing academia. Many people working within these emerging forms of scholarly communication are not necessarily senior scholars in their field. Some do not have traditional credentials such as PhDs. Pre-tenure scholars, or individuals who are not anywhere near the tenure track (eg, “alt-ac” individuals, individuals who focus on teaching and learning as their primary academic agenda, or people working in their fields for private industry or the government) are often those who are most visible in exploring the more Resident aspects of digital tools and modes.

New Forms of Resident Online Currency

Here we argue for the transformative potential of the participatory Resident web even as we acknowledge its role in reinforcing traditional, or institutional modes of power and privilege. Those with strong institutional voices can simply have them be amplified on the open Web. But those without voice might have more of a chance to acquire influence under this new model. Early career academics take an interest in, and attempt to professionalise, the Resident Web in part because it is a new space they can assert themselves in. They can see that the roles they have been assigned within the traditional system require playing a long game, one which is crowded with people lodged in positions of power. The potential of the Resident Web to facilitate collective action, to host communities of practice that can destabilize the gravity of institutions in favor or more grass-roots groups of practitioners with their own values and ideologies. It can also simply re-create the institution (and all of its structural proclivities) online. This is the case of Wikipedia, for example, where we see the drive to control and retain power recreating a similar hierarchy of gatekeeping and policing as an entrenched university. As George Santayana wrote in 1905, “revolutions are ambiguous things. Their success is generally proportionate to their power of adaptation and to the reabsorption within them of what they rebelled against.”

There are a variety of Resident Web practices that people engage in when generating new forms of currency that can yield credibility in various contexts. Individuals become “trusted sources” outside of their institutional affiliation by having a visible and quantifiable amount of social capital, generally expressed in terms of followers, likes, comments, and so on. Currency in these new modes is linked to notions of what Stephen Downes and George Siemens call “connectivism,” or building knowledge as a collective endeavour. Such new currency accrues to individuals rather than institutions, and individuals gain the quality of being “credible” by engaging actively and openly with relevant discourses — and occasionally, irrelevant or ‘off-topic’ ones, as individuals who are perceived to be too narrow in their expressions or interests may not be seen as trustworthy as those who reveal themselves to be complex in their interests, talents, and failures.

Acquiring currency can be about whether a person is perceived to be vulnerable, not just authoritative, alive and sensitive to intersections and landscapes of power and privilege: As Jennifer Ansley explains, “In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference.” In other words, scholars will gain a form of currency by becoming perceived as “human” (the extent to which ‘humanness’ must be honest self-expression or could be fabricated is an interesting question here) rather than cloaked by the deliberately de-humanised unemotive academic voice. This is perhaps because the absence of physical embodiment online encourages us to give more weight to indications that we are assigning credibility to a fellow human rather than a hollow cluster of code. We value those moments where we find the antidote to the uncanniness of the disembodied Web in what we perceive to be indisputably human interactions.

Recently, polarized positions over the potential value and dangers of Resident Web practice have started to mature into a more balanced discourse, with the risks of selling your “self” online countered by the potential for increased agency. It nonetheless remains crucial to consider the implications of becoming visible online when such visibility largely takes place in online platforms run by multinational corporations. People’s experiences of the web operating in a different manner to the traditional academy are still occurring within a cluster of online institutions. It is naive to assume that any given place we attempt to generate currency, either on or offline, is inherently more or less benevolent than another.

Agency via the Resident Web and the Structure of the Academy

The Resident Web makes visible the ways that the Academy works and has always worked. Knowledge has always been socially negotiated, the production of it embedded in the identity of scholars and these new modes make that undeniable. As a bastion of knowledge and truth, the traditional academy feels it shouldn’t have to connect in a human manner, this de-humanized approach is emblematic of the purity of truth the academy claims to own. Some within the academy might also consider that if it’s possible for a non expert to understand, certain knowledge loses its value. Engaging with the Web in Resident mode breaks the authority and formality of the publishing cycle and calls into question the aloofness of the academy and its socio-cultural role. It is no longer the case that inaccessibility is a measure of credibility. Being accessible, comprehensible and reachable is where credibility now lies, because of the expectations embedded in practicing openly on the Resident Web.

Scholars are no longer solely dependent on institutional markers to be a visible, credible practitioner. It is possible to be an independent, networked intellectual and scholar via the Web. In the industrialized, commodified model of intellectual labor that has come to dominate late 20th and early 21st century academia, the focus has historically been on producing units (articles, books, grants awarded, etc.) to be consumed rather than on forming the relationships and networks from which work can emerge. This now needs to be reconsidered as the Web influences the academy to re-position itself within a larger knowledge landscape in a more connected manner. The academy can no longer simply serve its own communities in the context of the networked Web, and it is under increasing cultural pressure to reach out and appear relevant. The web breaks us out of a product-centered publishing cycle and allows us to become part of an ongoing flow, in which knowledge is perpetually negotiated within networks.

However, the predominant response of the Academy to the Web has been to remain in a publishing or ‘broadcast’ mode in which content is shared but with little expectation of contact (for example, Open Educational Resources or the mainstream MOOC). Nevertheless, some of the more successful MOOCs in terms of numbers have a clearly identifiable author/designer or, in the case of connectivist MOOCs, a charismatic leader. Here again we see evidence of the shift in emphasis online, away from the academy, towards the individual. In the case of connectivist MOOCs the individuals at the helm tend to be connected to educational institutions in some form but this is a secondary factor when considering the course’s currency.

We are not suggesting that the new currencies and opportunities for agency available on the Resident Web are going to inevitably circumvent or flatten existing academic structures and hierarchies. The high-visibility, easily Google-able, ‘celebrity’ academic sits between these extremes of incomprehensible authority and accessible but unimportant material, and highlights the tensions. In this case of the highly visible or celebrity academic the academy recognises the benefits of the visibility and influence but also looks down on being populist, and recognisably human. These tensions now need to be negotiated by all scholars not just those who make radio or television appearances. It makes a difference where a scholar is starting from, and what hierarchical structures they are embedded in. Who you are in (or beyond) your institution, what privilege you do or do not have access to, all of these factors have an impact on what choices you have on the Resident Web, and what the results of exercising agency might be.

As the locus of agency shifts towards the individual, the Academy is struggling to reframe its relationship with employees. The tacit institutional assumption that the Web (and digital technology more generally) means that work can, and will, be undertaken whenever necessary — here we see the pernicious effects of ‘flexibility’. There are also many examples of institutions attempting to control and appropriate currency generated by individuals in the Resident Web which is centered predominantly on their capital as a scholar rather than their affiliation to a particular workplace. A good example of this is some institutions attempt to police the focus of Twitter discourse by staff members or even claim that they own an individual’s followers.

Certainly in an era of ubiquitous online access, ascribing when the individual or institution owns intellectual capital can no longer be demarcated by notions of 9-5 working hours or location. Definitions of credibility are now being influenced by notions of openness, immediacy, and convenience, characteristics that are important to individuals evaluating the quality of sources, both people and content, they search for on online.

Conclusions

The Resident Web is kicking down the gates of the Academy, repositioning it in a new scholarly landscape in which content and identity are closely coupled. The currency of dehumanised paper-based paradigm publishing is being reframed and, to a certain extent, devalued by the connectedness, immediacy and social nature of the Resident Web. While there is a recognition by many institutions (and governments) of the increasing value of online currency there is still a clumsiness and lack of understanding around the concurrent increase in individual agency. Institutions that are agile enough to respond to online currency and agency will see their reputations improve and influence increase.

As scholars we need to put aside anachronistic notions of knowledge being produced by epistemologically neutral machines and embrace the new connections between credibility and vulnerable humanity which the Resident Web brings. In tandem with this, as institutions we need to recognise this shift by negotiating the new forms of risk online and supporting increased individual agency without reneging on our our responsibility to protect and nurture those in our employ.

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4 Responses

  1. Love this article, and plan to use it with my introductory Interdisciplinary Studies students, as we talk about building their majors in the context of building their PLN’s, connecting in transdisciplinary ways with their relevant communities, and selecting their online spaces where they will build their web presence. My one question here is about the OER comment. It’s a familiar characterization of OER (“in which content is shared but with little expectation of contact”), but I think we do the open licenses a disservice when we think of them as “adoptable” rather than adaptable, as monologic rather than as dialogic. While OER can certainly save money and can certainly be “adopted” like any other “textbook,” I think we undersell its potential as a learning tool when we suggest that its adaptability and revisability is just an add-on benefit. I’m hoping that we will start thinking of OER as integrally involved with the kind of pedagogy that you are advocating here, where students become contributors and collaborators within a connected learning community. In that sense, OER are the best kind of learning materials, since they shift the relationship between learners and content, making it more reciprocal. I agree with you that OER and MOOCs are often deployed in broadcast-oriented ways, but I think both offer potential for much more radical kinds of refiguring of educational authority. I don’t like blaming OER or MOOCs for the failures here: I think it is up to us to recenter pedagogy into our OER and MOOC projects, and make a better case for how they can empower learners…

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