Educational theorist and provocateur Stephen Downes made really persuasive video on the difference between a Virtual Learning Environment and a Personal Learning Environment.
This got me thinking about how this difference is relevant to the area of federated, open research. And I think the analogy is pretty much on the money. Researchers, of course, already have such networks. And they’re not new. They existed in letters since the Roman Empire (at least). Darwin was a prolific networker and his success in both establishing his theories and making them palatable to his contemporaries can be in large part attributed to them. Researchers network through a variety of means:
- Publishing academic papers
- Presenting papers at conferences
- Reviewing academic papers
- Serving on editorial boards of academic journals
- Attending conferences, workshops and lectures
- Direct correspondence with each other
So it might seem, that researchers already have such Personal Learning Networks. But the problem is that except for the first two, most of this networking is closed. And, very often, much of what is important happens in off-hand conversations at conference dinners or after-lecture chats. The work that researchers do is often hard to understand without an understanding of the ‘network’ context. And these networks are really hard to get into for new researchers or just interested members of the public. But even established, recognized researchers often miss out on important aspects of what is going on because they miss a conference.
All it would take is for researchers to get into the habit of tweeting, blogging and following each other on social networks. At best, they send emails to mailing lists (but these are mostly conference and publication announcements). And this would open up the opportunities for non-researchers to join in these networks and offer the practitioner perspective. This may not be all that relevant to say, particle physics, but most humanities and social sciences would benefit.
This would do far more good to society and academia than these constant disastrous efforts at popularization through the media.
Now, as I have written here before, one of the obstacles is the lack of institutional recognition for these efforts. So maybe having a concept like a Personal Research Environment or Network, might get things rolling on this front.