#higher-ed, EdTech, research

Advice for post-grads

This week we are receiving the Master’s degree students of 2013 in the School and I am busy updating a few presentations. Along with the usual advice on how to approach the research proposal and tips and trick for academic writing, I also want to share my thoughts on how they can add value to the post-grad experience. This goes along with a post from last year about thinking like a researcher.

So I make a few PowerPoint slides and would love to get more input:

academic publication, NRF, professor, single-authorship

Does single authorship matter?

Yesterday I attended a research meeting and it was said that there is a new challenge facing us: if you want to become a Professor, or obtain a NRF rating, you have to write more single-author articles. This should be balanced with the drive to do more multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary research (and with achieving large quantities of high-quality outputs). We argued a bit and I decided to write this post.

The challenge of the academic environment is to make your work visible. Teaching presents some particular challenges, but I have always thought that research is easier. A paper is a paper. If you want to, you can count the number of authors, attribute things to the order in which the authors are mentioned, or have a look at the impact factor, h-score or just the number of citations. It should be an easy metric of what you can do as a researcher.

Apparently the idea behind this single-authorship “challenge” is that multiple-author papers do not provide a  clear enough signal of ability. Maybe some people are being carried. To become a Prof, you need to show that you can do it all on your own!

I think that these ideas should be treated with caution. It assumes that multiple-authors are simply sharing the work and that the efficiency and quality of the end products are are same as single-author papers. As an economist I tend to favour the idea of the division of labour and specialisation. Writing with good co-authors gives the opportunity to do just that and it benefits efficiency and quality. I think that there are also spillover effects if you have good international collaborators. They have not only mastered the latest methods, but also have experience of what it takes to submit to top journals. There is usually a lot to learn.

Practically speaking the division of labour is typically between the writer and the empirical specialist. One can write with just the turn of phrase that makes the literature review excellent. She/he shares with the co-author who has access to a unique data set, or can estimate the fashionable econometric model of the day. Given the number of years and amount of work it takes to become a professor, you will probably have each of those roles at some stage. I may be too rational, but no-one is going to carry you all the way to professorship.

Instead of getting young academics to write single-author papers, we should rather be encouraging them to write with a greater variety of co-authors and just plain better co-authors.

But now the question is: do I have data to support these claims? Unfortunately there is only so much that you can learn from an hour or two on the internet. I had a look at the ERSA working papers to get an idea of the prevalence of single- and multiple-author papers in Economics and discovered the following:

Single authorship is more prevalent than I thought, but as expected, the two-author format is common. You do find ERSA papers with three authors, but there are very few with more than three authors.

You would need to know a lot more about the papers and authors involved to draw any conclusions. I know a fair number of the authors of these ERSA papers and want to conclude that there is no clear pattern. You find young researchers and established Profs writing single-author papers. There is also diversity in type of topic and approach, though you will probably find a few more theory papers with only one author. The multiple-author papers are often by colleagues at the same university and they are repeat collaborators. Having a close look at the data could be quite interesting and inform administrators’ ideas of how, and at what stage of a career, single-authorship should be promoted. For now, they are probably set on this idea and it might be best to play the game a bit and write a single-author paper for the next round of promotion. Then, e-mail your collaborators and get started on some proper work!

I’m keen to get some thoughts and comments on this.

MOOC, on-line learning

On-line education and MOOCs

At the start of the year I am sitting in different meetings where on-line learning is put forward as the next big thing that we should all be getting into right now. I’m all for it, but think that we need to ask a number of critical questions before rolling out the ECON111 course on iTunesU or YouTube.

I am slowly putting together a proper post on this for SA universities and academics, but want to start with a few links. First, by simile:

The economist-side of me thinks that maybe universities should not think about MOOCs as a way to reach more students at lower cost, contribute to learning or upliftment or any of the good reasons to do it. Universities should think about it as a way to improve price discrimination. I.e. to get more students to pay more for  the premium campus experience with the Profs. Think of first, business and economy class on airlines. This thinking was inspired by a bit from an a post on airlines by Frances Wooley on the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative blog: The quote refers to an even earlier era of rail travel:

It is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof over the third-class carriage or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches … What the company is trying to do is prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from traveling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich … And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to the third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class customers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.
 I would love to hear some thoughts on this.

#higher-ed, badges, gamification, serious games

A few first thoughts on games and badges

At the start of the new academic year I am reading and thinking about the so-called gamification of education. I have not read enough for a proper overview, but want to get some thoughts out there. Put very basically, the idea is that learning can occur through play. That does not mean that there has to be some kind of simulation, on-line or in-class game, rather it is about a way of structuring the learning experience. The ideas behind game-based learning are:

  • learning-by-doing,
  • focus on problem solving, and
  • engagement of students.

A nice post on the Inside HigherEd blog explains how something like the Fitbit brings gaming elements to fitness and what that may mean for learning. (Fitbit is an activity and sleep tracker, similar to the Nike Fuel Band). You can set your objectives, in the fitness case, in terms of calories or steps. Measuring steps taken or floors climbed adds motivation. The data can be tracked and analysed, but there is also immediate feedback and recognition of milestones reached. There is a social element and you can share the process and the results. It is of course all very much mobile.

For teaching an Introductory Economics course this could mean:

  • finding a way for students to set their objectives, 
  • regular measurement of knowledge, skills and competencies gained, with quick feedback,
  • adding elements of sharing, collaboration and competition through badges and leaderboards, and
  • ideally it should all be easy to access – electronic and mobile.

I don’t know how to tackle all this yet, but it is being done. HBR blog network reports how Deloitte made learning in their leadership programme a game with great success.

I’ll keep everyone posted on the progress.