ANALYSIS & OPINION

Getting an early start

Technology will make the next generation of researchers more social, writes Alice Atkinson-Bonasio

Students growing up in the digital age instinctively understand the importance and long-term value of building up their social media profile. What isn’t always clear, however, is how to best leverage this to showcase their achievements to, for example, a university admissions officer or future employers.  

This is what prompted Lebanese entrepreneur Tony Feghali to launch Skoolee earlier this year. He believes there is an unfulfilled need for a social network centred solely on academic activities. Initially, his Beirut start-up (one of 15 technology companies brought to London as part of the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub accelerator) is aiming to support high-school students towards their university applications by giving them a platform to organise and document their academic achievements.

With a PhD and more than 25 years of experience teaching at universities in both the US and Lebanon, Feghali is very familiar with the inner workings and idiosyncrasies of academia, and believes the system is ripe for disruption: 'We still rely largely on standardised testing and interview mechanisms which often fail to provide an accurate overall picture a student’s abilities and potential,' he explains.

This is a problem highlighted in a recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which stressed the need for students to better document other aspects of their academic lives, such as extracurricular activities.

The well-acknowledge problems of elitism and lack of representation in many institutions including Oxbridge stems partly from the fact that many students aren’t able to accurately represent their research and abilities in pressurised exam conditions or a face-to-face interview environment. This does not mean, however, that the long-term value of contribution would be any less valid.

Giving assessors – whether they’re an university admissions tutor, a Viva examiner or a journal editor – access to such an evolving and comprehensive portfolio could very well improve access and representation in academia, helping to level out the playing field.

Tracking the progress of their work over time, and comparing it with that of their peers around the world can also help propel students towards higher levels of achievement. These creative-competitive-collaborative interchanges have, after all, always existed within academia, but technology has the potential to greatly magnify their scope and help them transcend traditional geographical and institutional boundaries.

The benefits extend beyond peer-to-peer communication, however. Institutions can use such platforms to both collect data about researchers and their work and to better engage with them, ensuring they address their individual needs in a much more efficient manner.

Yet, in spite of the potential benefits that widespread adoption of such social technology would bring to the research ecosystem, this remains an elusive goal. While platforms such as Mendeley, Academia.edu and ResearchGate attract millions of researchers, the bulk of their activity centres around the use of tools that enable content sharing and better workflow management within existing parameters, rather than new collaborations, profile building and research dissemination.

At 53, Feghali is hardly a digital native himself, so he empathises with academics who hesitate to fully engage with social media in their work. With 15-year-old triplets of his own, however, he has experienced first-hand how technology has become ubiquitous in the lives of the current generation of students.

'I’m pretty much from the punch card machines era, complete with blinking CRT black/white monitors with beep, beep, beep…' he laughs, 'but this next generation of academics and researchers coming through the education system now will not remember a time when social media didn’t permeate every aspect of how they interacted with the world, and that certainly includes their learning and career development.'

He believes EdTech will help academia shift to a different model, one that is much less linear and insular, focusing rather on broader goals, teaching and skillsets.

'It is our responsibility now to build the tools and platforms to equip the next generation of students, educators, and institutions to deal with this emerging reality,' concludes Feghali.

We have seen a shift in recent years towards Altmetrics, with widespread recognition among scholars that research impact cannot be reliably measured through traditional publication and citation metrics alone, and must account for elements such as social media sharing and reach. It follows, therefore, that academic social profiles – built and nurtured over time – should become repositories of this broader spectrum of research activity. In other words, a researcher’s profile might, in future, become just as important to their career development as degrees and publications.

Alice Atkinson-Bonasio (@alicebonasio) works as a strategic communications consultant and writes for various outlets such as The Huffington Post and The Next Web as well as her own EdTech Trends blog.

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Analysis and opinion
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Analysis and opinion