The Role of Blogging in Academia- An Exemplar, some developing good practice and others that need more work

I started blogging seriously just over a year ago and as you may be able to tell I am really into it. I try and post at least once a week on a range of subjects, often, but not exclusively linked to Birmingham where I live and work. I find it a liberating technology for getting ideas out there in the web. The way I use it is to raise questions, gently point out problems in ‘urban management issues’ and to celebrate good practice, I combine blog posts – linking them to my twitter and linkedin networks to get maximum potential readership. What is exciting about this whole process is to know that across the world people are accessing my thoughts and I really am intrigued why for instance people in South Korea or the Russian Federation might be interested in my comments.

Now blogs I think are best when they are timely, they are responding to developments.  There is a risk that they are not fully considered and I must admit once or twice I have thought afterwards perhaps I was too harsh; to hasty so often it is good to sleep on a draft blog post. But this post is not about how to blog but is seeking to raise the profile of academic bloggers.   I must admit I am not an academic; I am a visiting lecturer at the University of Birmingham but most of my work is too practically focussed to be called academic. But I have really noticed the rise and the importance of academic blogs and really value them. I follow a number either through wordpress directly or more often through twitter. So who do I value; well nationally I follow a number of the LSE blogs and I think it useful, but admittedly unscientific to look at their approach.

I am interested  in Europe and so I follow their European Policy one; they have a helpful page (here) which lists I am sure, many but not all, of the blogs emanating from the LSE .

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So what is clear from just looking at the LSE; their approach is based around thematic blogs which are supported by a range of authors: they do not seem to favour individual academic blogs. Their approach is clearly outlined here by Patrick Dunleavy and he in this short interview outlines the impact and the importance of their blogs.

If you look at the European Policy blog currently; there in an update on the week in Brussels; very useful factual information but also a guest post from an academic from Royal Holloway College on voting patterns in Europe.  The former post drives readership; it is an easy way to keep in touch; the latter post gives a taste of timely research and points people to this research; i.e it markets the research. What is interesting, seemingly this blog post and its research has nothing to do with the LSE but it helps to strengthen the role of the LSE as a convenor of thoughts, a focus of knowledge, that by association builds credibility in this arena. 

What about individual academic blogs? Patrick Dunleavy argues against them as many are not maintained; a crucial issue with blogs are they have to be updated regularly and most are not.   

Now since starting this blog post I have found out that the LSE have won an award for their innovative approach to using blogs in 2011. This link describes more. The judges in awarding the LSE stated

The comments and debates it generates influences stakeholders and policymakers in a much more subtle and powerful way than traditional lobbying. This is a real example of how social scientists do have, and can demonstrate, real impact.”

And it is noted that one of their blogs attracted over 5000 visits a week; I am sure this is much higher now. So the LSE appear to set the standard. In many ways the LSE is becoming a web publisher through this activity.

Practice in Birmingham’s Universities – a taster

So, as I live and work in Birmingham I ask myself; what is practice in Birmingham. I will look briefly at the three main Universities (we have 5 now!).

At Birmingham City University; who are very strong in social media teaching; they do have a portal webpage linking to various thematic blogs; but tasting a few of them they seem to be static and lacking in life.  Sample for instance this one GamerCampBlog it has only four posts in 2013, a couple of which look really too long. So not frequent enough and not tight enough to drive attention to this element of BCU’s work. They have one blog – which is about encouraging academics to blog – (here) which is regularly posted to but it very much seems like an internal blog and doesn’t really build the reputation of BCU apart from in the blogging arena. There is an interesting blog on Cultural Entrepreneurship; which is updated roughly once a month (which is probably not enough) and on closer reading it is clearly posted to by only one academic.  One academic I know at BCU – Dave Harte has a real focus and is well known for local blogging/ hyper local news. He doesn’t seem to blog about his research perse and his personal blog is more focussed on Birmingham rather than BCU.

So whilst BCU does get the importance of blogging, and it should do because it teaches Social Media at an MA level,  it seemingly could do much better in using blogging to drive its reputation.

Since writing this I have had comment from BCU colleagues and I need to say they are more advanced than I thought. They have a better portal webpage than the one I found (here)  and they have a very good built environment one (here). A real improvement on what I found; however it probably needs to go one step further and be hosting non BCU academics as well..but refreshing compared to other blogs sites in Birmingham’s Universities. 

What about the University of Birmingham and Aston.  For the University of Birmingham I did a search on their website for ‘blog’ and it came up with this.

There is no apparent portal for their blog activities. So I took a two pronged approach- looked at new initiatives like the institute for Advanced Studies which was launched this year and my second approach was to dive into some of the links on the search page.

The IAS has two current academic foci; Regenerating Economies which was launched in Spring this year and secondly Saving Humans which is being launched this autumn. This new cross disciplinary institute is a major focus of the University so you would think it would be good at publicising it’s works.

Looking at the Regenerating Economies aspect; I attended the launch event and am aware there is some really good work planned however there is no blog on their part of the UoB website and unfortunately not a lot on their work programme. (There is a dead web link – which doesn’t bode well for communicating their good work). I know there is good stuff behind this but to an outsider it says nothing about the work and doesn’t in any way build credibility.

Saving Humans may well be better- they have a blog which is a good start for a programme that hasn’t formally been launched. It is not very active yet and doesn’t have the branding of the University but the first post I saw on Environmental pollution (a subject close to my heart) was great. So hopefully this could be the start of something good – but it needs work.

I delved into a few of the search results to find- unbranded and un-updated blog sites like this on Water Sciences last updated in February this year. Or this site on Housing and Communities with a few worthy posts but with no life about it. Or this blog on autism which doesn’t seem to mention it is derived from UoB  but is linked to from UoB web pages. These are just a few examples;  they were randomly chosen, possibly unrepresentative;  and I am sure there must be better ones in UoB but undoubtedly there are learning lessons.

So lets look at Aston University shall we. Now I am writing this as I do the research and the search term ‘blog’ came up with an Aston University site labelled as the Aston University blog.  What a disappointment  – take a look;  it has seemingly four blog posts in its life time the last dated February 2011. This is not a good advert for the good work of the University.  The University as well set up a blog in 2011 to celebrate work on ‘crossing boundaries‘  This was time limited to 2011 and in reality was not very active even in that period. The issue for Aston to consider is how long do you leave it up on the website before taking it down.

I have just found another one; one I might be interested in The Aston Centre for Europe blog – a potential competitor to the LSE one? They quote

The Aston Centre for Europe Blog is updated regularly with news, analysis, student news and event round ups from the Centre. We also welcome your comments! You can find the website by clicking here.’

I am going to take a look now. One link gives me this web page; is it supposed to be an internal blog? The other link gets me through to their blog . Now this looks like it is going somewhere – 16 posts this year; perhaps not enough but a start; a branded blog clearly showing its provenance from Aston University but still a little disappointing. There seems to be no external academic input – it seems like it is only Aston University staff and it missed some really important events recently at Aston. There was a key seminar on Europe 202o with external speakers. This could have been covered. There was a launch earlier in the year of a key Aston University led EU funded project called Cityspyce – launched by the Vice Chancellor – it should have been covered. So this is something to be built on but needs more input and effort.

So what are the lessons learnt from this unscientific trawl. I think LSE really set the standards (there may be others) but in Birmingham our Universities  have a patchy approach and have a lot to learn. I think there are a few key lessons.

  1.  Universities in this connected world really are missing a trick if they are not into blogging and wider social media. It can drive attention to the work going on in the University. I am talking not about in the first instance social media to drive student numbers; I am talking about social media to drive reputation.
  2. They however need to consider at a strategic level how it should be done; so that there is an agreed template; an agreed approach, agreed branding and agreed academic/policy areas to focus on.
  3. I would suggest fewer and better blogs are much more useful than many random half dead sites which can actually detract from the University’s reputation.
  4. Personal blogs are fine but if a site has a University branding it is better if it is supported by a group of academics; encourages external academics in; comments on relevant policy developments and on emerging work that is timely. This is the crucial learning lesson for me from the LSE portfolio of blogs.
  5. It needs to be regularly updated and crucially shared by twitter and other social media. Take a look at how often the LSE update their sites and their academics tweet the links. Twitter is vital as it drives interaction. It is important to spread posts by twitter and to engage in any debate that results.
  6. So Universities need to develop social media strategies where support to staff is a crucial issue.
  7. Academics and research students need to be taught about how to blog; now there are some great resources in the Birmingham to be able do this. I was taught by PODNOSH  who comes from a community focused approach.  They need to know how to do it and what tools to use and almost how to write, as writing for blogs is different to academic writing. I think there is a real market opportunity here for a social media consultancy to specialise on advising Universities/ academics.
  8. I have no evidence for the following statement but I feel that active blogs can actually help debate and joining up within Universities; there are so many pressures on academics nowadays that mean often sharing, collaborating and debating suffer. A blog can stimulate that.
  9. Perhaps as well encourage academics, where there is no relevant University blog, (or as well as) to  contribute to other blogs as a way of raising their profile – so for instance twitter colleagues of mine Alister Scott ( @bcualisterscott ) and David Bailey (@dgbailey) regularly contribute to the Birmingham Post blog. This helps their reputation and the Universities involved to some extent.

So these are a few key points. What do you feel? Have I been unfair to your University as I recognise this would not merit appearing in a peer review publication; do you know of other exemplar approaches to social media in the academic world; what is your University doing about it. I would be willing to hear your views here or on twitter ( @globalbirminghm)

  

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One comment

  1. Today at BCU we’ve also launched a dedicated Research Blog: http://blogs.bcu.ac.uk/research/. This will provide a weekly round up of research news from the University. It is run by the University’s research office.

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