Academic blogging

Liberating knowledge through academic blogging

blogging wordpress styleAcademic blogging is a great way for knowledge to reach wider society.

Those of us who work in universities like to think that academics and their ideas have the power to make the world a better place.

But all too often, scholarly insight and knowledge fails to reach the wider world: locked behind journal pay walls, echoing around empty lecture theatres, or collecting dust in lonely libraries. Surely, we can do better.

One proven approach is to harness the power and potential of academic blogging: it is a cost-effective way of re-packaging lofty scholarship in accessible, bite-sized formats. We know this model works because we make it happen every day with our specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs, which we call New Mandala.

Set up in June 2006 with our colleague Andrew Walker, New Mandala was, first and foremost, an experiment. Its aim was to provide anecdote, analysis and new perspectives on the politics and societies of the Southeast Asian region. Originally this meant writing about research in progress, flagging potential subjects of scholarly interest, and seeking feedback on our more traditional publications. Our early forays were hesitant. We had no confidence that the experiment would work.

At the start, getting any readers, let alone a respectable daily audience, was never guaranteed. But then, as happens, in September 2006 Thailand’s military launched one of its sporadic coups and our humble website enjoyed a remarkable spike in recognition. Overnight, we gained unexpected notoriety as a website offering immediate and in-depth analysis of Thai political drama.

New Mandala has come a long way since those tumultuous days of tanks and guns on the streets of Bangkok. Today, our many thousands of daily readers are drawn from all over the globe, and digest content about all 10 of the Southeast Asian nations.

In the past decade, New Mandala has published more than 5000 articles that have inspired more than 56,000 approved comments. These have generated many millions of page views.

Our articles are regularly reprinted by mainstream media, including the hallowed Canberra Times, and we are recognised as a highly visible and influential forum for public debate on the region’s political, social and cultural issues – not just among scholars and students, but also with policymakers, politicians, diplomats and journalists. We are proud, yet more properly humbled, that our little blog has come so far.

Much more importantly, the last decade with New Mandala has taught us some valuable lessons about how academic blogging, when done well, can really make a difference.

The first lesson is about the changing knowledge landscape. Nowadays, whether we live in Yangon or Yarralumla, we are all technological animals. And our academic blogging – far from being a frivolous distraction unwelcome among the basic tasks of research and teaching – is an essential tool in the academic repertoire.

If knowledge is supposed to drive ideas, deepen understanding, unpack complexity and enrich society, then we must do all we can to connect with the wider world. Today’s internet makes that possible to an unprecedented degree and there is no point in pretending otherwise.

The second lesson is that universities and scholars have a special responsibility to encourage creative online activities. Our bottom-line is that well-maintained and carefully-curated websites are the ultimate public good.

Handled properly, we expect that the much hyped potential of digital disruption offers historic opportunities for universities to take their research to whoever can benefit from it, wherever they may live.

Yet it still frustrates us that too often the prevailing model of research publication, stuck in a rut centuries in the making, rewards those who disseminate their work as narrowly as possible. The self-perpetuating narrowness of academic debate is a fundamental weakness of the system we have inherited.

Such priorities were always muddle-headed, but the great advantage of today’s technology is that we finally have a chance to fix them.

For that to happen any time soon, there needs to be a full and open debate about the role of digital technologies in the modern university and how a new generation of publishing can take best advantage of the rapidly evolving online realm.

As we celebrate New Mandala’s first decade of operation, it is clear that a proactive, collegial and constructive approach to the digital world will give the taxpayer a better return on their investment in academic research.

Ideally, the platforms that we build will also ensure that future generations are not locked out of the knowledge that tomorrow’s challenging circumstances will demand.

Nicholas Farrelly and James Giggacher work together on New Mandala, which is based at the ANU Coral Bell of Asia Pacific Affairs. New Mandala’s 10th anniversary was marked with a public symposium at ANU on Thursday.

6 tips to make the most of student blogging
Blogging with students can lead to some powerful and unexpected outcomes
Student blogging is one of the best ways to implement writing across all areas of curriculum. From reading response to explanation of math lessons, you can have your students blog in virtually any subject area. And guess what? They’ll like it a lot more than answering multiple choice questions on a worksheet, which will lead to deeper thinking and higher quality work.

So if you’re considering using blogging in your classroom, check out these tips to set yourself (and your students) up for success.

Begin by starting your own blog.
I’m a firm believer in not asking students to do anything that I’ve never done before, especially when it comes to technology. So before you ever try to get your students to start their own blog, you need some experience running your own.

Now I could go into the minutia of how to start your own teacher blog, but I’ve already created a guide on that topic that you can read here. Just know that, while the process is simple, you may run into some kinks along the way. Better to figure those out on your own time, as opposed to on the day you’re introducing it in class.

Introduce your blog to your students.

Your own teacher blog is the best introduction you could possibly give your class to blogging. I started off by blogging for a little while to get the hang of it. Then one day, I posted a lesson review after class with a link to a YouTube video that helped explain the lesson (YouTube is full of great reviews that take some of the work off your plate).

The next day in class, I pulled up my blog on the smartboard and showed students the review. I emailed them (and their parents) the blog link, so they could check from home. (Unexpected benefit: students were able to view lessons they missed in class when they were absent).

From there, I posted an assignment on my blog, in reference to a novel we were reading. It was an open-ended question that required a short-answer response. Students were instructed to answer in the comments, and then to comment on other student responses. The upshot was that by the time my students created their own blogs, they were well-acquainted with the idea.

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