Why I Published My Dissertation Findings on Buzzfeed

dissertation comic
                  Source: Fresh Spectrum

By the end of my time writing my dissertation, my goals for my work included:

  • Not having it sit on a (digital & actual) shelf, never to be seen again
  • For people to actually read it, or to at least read some version of it
  • To release it relatively quickly

If you know me, you probably know that my research is on college student use of social media and how that use relates to their civic learning and participation.  As you might imagine, this topic changes very quickly.  In fact, over the course of my work, I came to find out that Facebook adjusts its news feed algorithm on a weekly basis (h/t @Zeynep for that).  This is just one example of the speed of variance we are up against when approaching this sort of study.  To a social scientist, this is incredibly frustrating, because we know that it takes months, or years(!) for our finished research work to ever reach others.  Meanwhile, trying to account for the variation in something that changes constantly can feel like a Sisyphean task.  One of the few things that we can do, then, is to try and get our results out as quickly as possible to at least maintain some level of relevancy.

Taking the above into account, the traditional book/peer review article/chapter route didn’t seem right for me.  I think that for several reasons — furthering the academic knowledge base by allowing others to cite your work, long-term contributions to the literature, traditional norms among faculty, etc. — it may still be important for me to publish in traditional formats.  However, right now I want people to have easy access to this work, and I’d like to provide it in a format that is appealing to the average reader.

The power of social media to start and amplify discussions around political and social topics is a constant source of amazement for me.  As I developed my work, I came to realize that I wanted to practice what I preach and use these tools to advance what I see as an important topic.  Still, as the first person to publish their dissertation on Buzzfeed, this is experimental and a bit unpredictable, so I’ll just have to adapt as it goes.

If you’re interested in reading my work as it comes out, I’ll be adding to the below links to reflect new pieces as they are published.  Title/Topic:

Our Devices, Ourselves: Life in a Reflective Age


Marshall McLuhan famously noted, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the path of information has such a direct impact on the content of a message that the path of the message is more important than the content itself.  Basically, the fact that information is being transmitted through a newspaper, or through an email, or phone call, or a television, has such direct control over the person crafting the message, that inevitably the method of communication embeds itself in the DNA of the message.

So, if we accept McLuhan’s premise that the medium really is the message, what happens when every message we send to one another is mediated by a digital middle-man?  We rely on smartphones to transmit our voices (sometimes via voicemails, sometimes through live verbal conversation), we limit ourselves to 160 characters in a text message (140 in a Tweet), and we accept our posts out to friends and followers to have certain layout and size limitations across Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on.

What happens as our technology gets smarter?  As Facebook learns what we are more likely to click, when Google customizes our search results to fit with our search history, and when our recent actions are used by our computers to anticipate what we might do next?  All of these aforementioned things happen now, and trends indicate that we’re heading further in the direction of customized everything.  In this way, the medium through which information travels impacts the content in ever-escalating ways. Ever heard of “The Internet of Things (IoT)?”  The basic idea of this is that as many aspects of our lives are digitally connected, many of which learn our habits and preferences, increasingly working in tandem to make life more convenient. Companies now work to build devices that embrace the IoT in areas both mundane (home lights and temperatures adjusting on their own, based on your schedule) and significant (wellness indicators that can directly connect with health providers).  As our technology gets smarter, its role in our communications and actions grows larger.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it is primary reason why devices like smartphones are so useful.

The implications of a more fully integrated, intelligent, and responsive world around us are being realized every day.  One such implication, however, is the idea that our devices and applications are reflections of ourselves.  Think about it this way — In the movie Her, Samantha (the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson) layers an encyclopedic knowledge of information onto a complex analysis of the preferences of the user (played by Joaquin Phoenix).  So, the system operates with an infinite set of resources, all designed to cater to the user’s every specific whim.

house of mirrors
Source: http://www.barcelonafootballblog.com/22023/believing-beliefs-aka-bara-house-mirrors/

If our devices are really becoming reflections of ourselves, many questions are raised. Are the reflected images accurate, or are they skewed, as in a funhouse mirror? Are our actions changed, based on the assumption that other people will likely see those actions publicly online (see: Cooley’s Looking-glass self theory)? Do our interactions with one another contain the same value online as they do offline? Are the screens through which we exchange information barriers to communication in addition to serving as facilitators? Do the multiple layers that exist between person A and person B in a digital message result isolation for both parties?

I’m not entirely certain where I stand on these issues, to be honest. Either way, I think we owe ourselves an ongoing audit of our technologies, in a search for good, bad and in between.  I’ll end with one of my favorite videos/songs from last year that points a critical eye at our reflective age:

Arcade Fire ‘Reflektor’ from Final Cut on Vimeo.

Looking for Gaps in the Literature: Higher Education in a Digital Age


Note: This blog post is cross-posted at the ACPA Digital Task Force Blog, but I thought it might be relevant here for anyone interested in the work that we’ve been doing on the ACPA Research & Scholarship group as part of the ACPA Digital team.  Free free to share your thoughts here or on the original post!


As part of our work on the Research & Scholarship subcommittee, our team recently began officially exploring what we perceive to be the gaps in the literature on digital technology and higher education.  Of course, many of us in our doctoral programs have already done quite a bit on this search, and so our combined backgrounds served as a great starting point for this project.  Still, in a new but burgeoning field, it is our expectation that we will not be able to identify all of the gaps on our own.  Our hope is that the gaps that we identify help to further the conversation that is then continued by the community of scholarly practitioners and faculty in higher education.  Below are some of the large gaps that we’ve already discussed as a group.  With that, we ask: what gaps have we not yet identified? Higher Education in a Digital Age: Large Gaps in the Literature

  • Demographic Differences in Technology Use and Issues of Equity – Much of the literature on technology use in higher education looks at general trends and suggests parsing the data further to uncover the impact of technology on minority groups.  How can our research help to work towards the larger goals relating to equity within higher education?
  • Qualitative Research – The majority of work out there on social media use is quantitative – what topics have already been explored from a quantitative perspective that would benefit from the addition of qualitative data?
  • The Evolving Definition of Leadership Within Contemporary Higher Education (Due in Large Part to Technological Change) – The question of “what does it mean to be an effective leader within higher education (in 2014)?” is the focus of entire graduate programs/degrees.  How is technology impacting this central aspect of higher education administration?
  • Globalization of Higher Education and Technology’s Role in this Process – There are seemingly endless areas for exploration here, from BRIC nations and other emerging markets, to student mobility, to opportunities for the democratizing of education through web accessibility.  What questions need to be asked in this area?
  • MOOCS and Other Online Higher Education Environments – As these educational options persist, researchers are just now beginning to explore the areas that have long been studied within student personnel/higher education scholarship.  Research opportunities in this emerging area are already extensive, with more still yet to be realized.
  • Application of Long-Standing Theories (and the Creation of New Theory Where Necessary) Within the Contemporary Context – Huge areas of work are just now being revisited when accounting for digital contexts.  Within higher education, a starting point might be direct analyses of student development theory online and blended environments.
  • Higher Education Population Studies – From graduate students, faculty, and new professionals to SSAOS and college presidents, quantitative and qualitative research needs to be explored on usage, perception, and educational needs of each level within education.
  • Social Media and Social Justice – What does this relationship look like? What education is working, who is doing it right, and is it even possible at the large scale?

So, what do you think? The power of crowdsourcing can help us to push higher education scholarship forward, but your involvement is imperative. Let us know your thoughts in the comments and on Twitter at #ACPAdigital!

Adam Gismondi
Research & Scholarship Committee, ACPADigital

This One Weird Trick Generates Clicks: On Clickbait and Public Trust

[Upworthy Parody Headline via @UpWorthIt Twitter account]

Do you believe article headlines that you read on your social media feeds?  I’ve been asking this question of students as part of my dissertation research to begin my understanding of how students make sense of new media and elements of the world around them.  I’ll admit, I’m not so sure how I would answer the question myself.  Although I’ve been let down often by hyperbolic headlines that promise to “restore my faith in humanity,” I’m probably still a bit too trusting in terms of my expectations of news stories online.  Is this relentless optimism or gullibility?  Perhaps both.

Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and a sea of others have all adopted the practice of writing sensationalized headlines that help to drive traffic to stories.  “Clickbait” headlines have become so endemic on online news sites that it makes me wonder: What does this style of journalism (a term I use very loosely here) do to the average media consumer?  What is the end result of this trend, if it is one that will continue?  Is this a positive feedback loop that will result in a complete erosion of public trust in modern media?

I hesitate to pose such wide-reaching (and unanswerable, for the moment) questions, for fear that I might also be engaging in hyperbole. However, let’s consider the 24-hour news networks.  Looking at the big three (MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN), you don’t have to search far to find a clear parallel.

When I was a kid, I remember the teaser commercials for the local news saying things like, “What you don’t know about this common household cleaner may be putting you and your family in danger.  More at eleven.”  A mere taste:

In theory, the 24-hour news networks were supposed to give us hard news that went beyond this style of reporting.  In reality, the news networks have nudged further and further away from in-depth, investigative reporting and towards tactics that are aimed exclusively at building viewership above all else.  I would argue that these methods jeopardize public trust in information, and thus threaten the public good.

Perhaps the most striking example of cable news’ failure to inform is the absolute reliance on/abuse of (pick your favorite) the phrase “breaking news.”  Just one recent example can be seen below, in which an interview on government data collection is interrupted for breaking news on…a Justin Bieber hearing.

With each false alarm sounded by the media, public trust in these outlets erodes.  Do people stand up and take notice when “BREAKING NEWS” flashes across the screen with the same attentiveness now as they did even 15 or 20 years ago?

It is this same sort of desensitizing process that I fear when headlines set up news items that simply aren’t there.  As more and more sites shift to the clickbait tactic, how do we separate the actual “mind-blowing” and “amazing” from the ordinary?  Logically, a fair expectation might be that the stories that used to pack a punch may soon be overlooked.  The analogy that I keep coming back to is the idea of slash-and-burn farming.  This farming technique clears areas of trees for short-term farming, and it results in poor soil quality.  Farmers then must shift their efforts to a new area and repeat the process.  Similarly, I wonder if the short-term tactics of the media degrade the public trust in information, resulting in the impact of words being compromised.  Eventually, we may tune out and become more difficult to reach.

XKCD wins again.

Advisory Board Reflections: KQED’s Innovation in Practice

ImageSXSWedu 2014 Advisory Board Reflections: Guest Blog Post by Adam Gismondi

This blog entry is cross-posted from: http://www.sxswedu.com/news/2014/advisory-board-reflections-kqed%E2%80%99s-innovation-practice#sthash.BXGYYVY8.dpuf

Most of the conference presentations I’ve seen over the years end with a brief answer to the question, “so what?” Perhaps the element I love most about my two years at SXSWedu is that its sessions often make the “so what” the focus of the dialogue. One of my favorite 2014 sessions that stood out in this way came to us from KQED, a project for multidimensional learning.

The work presented by Matthew Williams of KQED is a perfect example of a creative idea successfully implemented. Existing at the intersection of public media, civic education, and social technologies, KQED provides students with a starting point and a forum for impactful discussions. Williams went through the tools used by KQED – a reliably updated website and an active Twitter presence were two examples – and proceeded to really showcase a model for how to implement technological tools in education. Another great session worth noting along these lines dealt with digital and participatory maps as educational tools. At SXSWedu, there is an assumed starting point for all attendees in terms of knowledge that you bring in, and this allows for a depth of conversation that is unreachable otherwise.

As an educator with a research focus on technology, I’ve seen all too many promising conference sessions devolve into a back-and-forth debate over the minutiae of definitions. SXSWedu mostly avoids this momentum-killing practice by using a format that rewards dialogue and practical application. The shared language that seems to serve as a backbone of SXSWedu leads to a notebook filled with tangible ideas and actions you can bring home. Of course, as with any conference, it’s important that you choose where to spend your time carefully, and you will find hits and misses. Once you find a session that takes theoretical propositions and animates them using clear applications, it can be an immensely rewarding professional experience.

Adam Gismondi is a PhD candidate in the Higher Education program at Boston College and former student affairs administrator. His dissertation is on undergraduate social media use as a means to civic engagement and his other research work deals broadly with technology within higher education. He can be found on Twitter @AdamGismondi and blogs regularly at societyandsocialmedia.wordpress.com.


The Kickstarter Model: Undergraduate Research and Alumni Engagement @ William & Mary


What do “social” web technologies look like in practice within higher education?  This is a question that I often see posed within both online conversations and at conference educational sessions, but rare is the tangible answer that follows.

Earlier this month, I was down at my alma mater, William & Mary, for the annual Charter Day Weekend festivities.  Each year, the College brings alums and current students together to celebrate the institution’s founding and honor distinguished alumni, and I was lucky enough to be down there representing the W&M Boston Alumni Chapter at the annual meetings.  It was at these meetings that I was introduced to an innovative practice currently being used that combines several elements of the college experience in a unique way.  Professor Joel Schwartz, Director of the Charles Center on campus, spoke about the Center’s Honors Fellows, students that apply for and receive special grants for research projects in their respective areas of interest.  This is a program that I was familiar with from my time at W&M, but the process by which students can now receive funding was markedly different.

Sample Fellowship funding pages
Sample Fellowship funding pages

The projects out of the Charles Center, as I remembered them, were fairly contained in a way – if you were interested in the projects being done, you could always find information after a bit of searching.  However, for a student that was not personally involved in a project, this research work seemed a bit abstract and distant, in a sense.  Unless you went through the application and funding process, it could be unclear exactly what work was being done and how it came about.  Recently, however, the Charles Center has shifted this process and made it much more engaging for those not personally connected with the Fellowship program through a revamped and social web presence.

As pictured above, Honors Fellows are now featured online with an abstract of the proposed study, academic department information, and hometown, along with a tracker of funding progress.  These straight-forward features allow for engagement within the campus community (and beyond) in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

As anyone that has ever received a college alumni email knows, university projects often rely on alumni donations, so engagement with graduates (who might be able to fund the research) is key to the maintenance of a program such as the Honors Fellowships.  In that regard, this website is a great resource.

First, the Honors Fellow website allow for the research proposal to be the primary focus, as it should be.  Students condense their project ideas into a short summary that still remains effective enough to help the reader understand the purpose, feasibility, and importance of the study.

Second, the information about department, advisor, and hometown allows for alumni to sort through projects based on groupings that might encourage more financial support.  Alumni within the biology department, for example, might decide to donate to a student working within their field.  Similarly, a regional alumni association can easily sort projects based on hometown and put together a fundraiser for a student from their state or region.

Third, having a funding status bar within the features (ala Kiva, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or many others) allows visitors to the site to a) see support needed, b) visualize the impact of a donation towards reaching an end goal, and c) become invested (financially, but also emotionally) in a way that can connect someone to the College.  Rather than pleading with potential donors to give to a general cause that they might not understand, this online strategy allows people the opportunity to understand, choose, and buy into a cause, person, department, or project that they believe in.  This is the sort of engagement that social media strategists speak of – this age of media is not just for broadcast; social media facilitates dialogue. *

Sample blog post
Sample blog post

The process of sharing and connecting with each year’s Honors Fellows continues beyond the initial donation process, as the site also features student blogs that document research progress.  A quick read through some of the entries illustrates how the follow-up writing allows for the work to really come alive in a way that might otherwise never be seen.

Often, those of us in higher education theorize ways in which we can integrate our latest tech tools into practice but struggle to bring these methods to fruition.  The work being done with the Honors Fellowship program at William & Mary is a program worth recognizing, because it accomplishes this difficult task and serves as a model for future work on other campuses.

*Note: One area that I was curious about when learning about the Fellowships was the idea of quality control – isn’t it possible that potentially excellent research proposals can be overlooked in favor of those from students who simply gain popular support?  The Charles Center accounts for this possibility by also having a committee of faculty reviewers that recognize and fund the top projects that do not make it to their fundraising goal online.