Monday, August 16, 2010

Higher Ed and the Rise of the Citizen Researcher

When I was in graduate school I used to chat about the state of the higher education system with my mentor, the late David Hays. We were particularly concerned about disciplinary rigidity and the difficulty of intellectual innovation. We felt then that too large a fraction of the research resources were devoted to the crossing of Ts and the dotting of Is and not enough attention was being given to paradigm-busting work.

In the course of these conversations I offered an informal observation: During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was the institutional center of Western intellectual life. Then Europe underwent a major cultural change during and after the Renaissance (currently known, I believe, as the Early Modern era) and new institutions were created. The Church remained, but it was no longer the central intellectual institution. That function was shifting to secular colleges and universities.

Well, we’ve been undergoing a comparable cultural change since the end of World War II. What’s going to happen to the higher education system? That’s not clear.

The existing system is not going to disappear, but it is certainly under stress. Much vocational training is shifting to online education, including for-profit schools that didn’t exist 50 years ago. But what of research?

On the questions of disciplinary boundaries and paradigm-busting, those matters are still up in the air. But the internet does seem to be giving rise to citizen researchers of various kinds, and that’s going to alter the overall research ecology.

The citizen observer

By citizen researcher I mean someone who performs a research function, but is not on staff at a college or university or other research organization, such an as an industrial lab, a government lab, or a private non-profit research institute.

For example, a recent New York Times article talks about a network of 57,000 people who have so far contributed to a protein-folding project coordinated through the University of Washington:
Proteins are essentially biological nano-machines that carry out myriad functions in the body, and biologists have long sought to understand how the long chains of amino acids that make up each protein fold into their specific configurations.

In May 2008, researchers at the University of Washington made a protein-folding video game called Foldit freely available via the Internet. The game, which was competitive and offered the puzzle-solving qualities of a game like Rubik’s Cube, quickly attracted a dedicated following of thousands of players.
While protein-folding can, and is, done by computers, it requires enormous resources. Humans can bring their pattern-matching ability to bear on the problem by observing and manipulating visual representations of possible configurations.

A recent article in Nature reports on that and similar projects. Stardust@home uses volunteers to examine 1.6 million images from an instrument designed to capture traces of interstellar dust. In March of 2010 one of these volunteers, a disabled groundskeeper named Bruce Hudson, found a track created by a pair of particles. Researchers at Oxford are having volunteers examine astronomical images to determine whether or not galaxies are spiral or elliptical, and to identify “galactic mergers, supernovae, solar storms and lunar craters.” Tim White, a Berkeley paleonologist, is planning to have volunteers scrutinize photographs for signs hominid fossils. Another Nature article reports on eBird, which was launched in 2002 and has recorded 48 million observations made by bird watchers around the globe.

The citizen expert

What these various projects have in common is the use of volunteers as a source of skilled observational labor. But that’s not all there is. The internet’s recently been abuzz with discussion of a proof about computational complexity. A proof was offered by Vinay Deolalikar at Hewett-Packard. According to an article at TechCrunch, once word got out
Both armchair and professional math pundits proceeded to tear it apart in comments sections and subsequent blog posts, finding major flaws. Before the age of Twitter, Facebook and social news aggregation , draft research papers on something as complex as P ≠ NP would have gone through a rigorous academic process, which would focus on whether the proof strategy is correct, and whether the apparent errors are easily corrected. Deolalikar’s proof draft was public for a day before being pounced on by the online chattering classes.
The “official” verdict on this proof will be rendered by specialists. But the interaction between “armchair and professional math pundits” we see in this case is ubiquitous on the internet.

This situation is quite different from the pre-internet situation, where expertise was ‘protected’ and isolated by physical space. Experts worked with one another in specialized institutions, such as university departments, government, and industrial laboratories, and private think-tanks; and they traveled to conferences. This world was more or less closed to those who were not credentialed full-time members. With the advent of the internet, credentialed full-time experts and interested and well-educated amateurs meet and mingle all the time on the internet at blogs, mailing lists, and other venues.

The old institutions still dominate this intellectual world. But I find it difficult to believe that this will remain so. Changes will come. New institutions will emerge.

For the public good

Now consider this abstract of a paper by Ellen Knutson and John Dedrick, Citizen Research: Lessons Learned and Community Applications:
From 2000 to 2002 the authors facilitated a workshop for the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio that taught qualitative research methods to community based practitioners who were working to address problems in their respective communities. Citizen research, as we called it, makes a contribution to addressing the problems of public life by potentially affecting the decisions that communities make about what to do and what not to do. We emphasize the word citizen in the phrase citizen researcher, and start with the democratic tradition that emphasizes the centrality of a broad mix of people working together to address the challenges that confront their communities, nation and the world. We use the term citizen not in it legal sense, but rather to indicate that people are actors, decision makers and producers. They get together, give voice, make determinations about what needs to be done to realize the public’s interest, and they work to make things that are of value to the public.

Our direct experiences in community and the intellectual traditions that emphasize the irreducible role of experience in understanding lead us to argue that citizens who are themselves the actors in public problem solving are often times best positioned to do the research that will be actually useful to communities. Further, by participating in research, community members develop the routines for accurate representations of community experience and document and create community memory that will in turn help them when addressing future problems. In this paper we will address not only the philosophy and ideas behind the workshop, but the lessoned we learned and how citizen research skills have been applied in “real world” situations.
Reading that I think, for example, about the environmental and climate issues that face us. Local ecologies bleed into one another and, in the large, encompass the entire globe. And so it is with weather patterns, they are at once local and global. To understand these phenomena we need a global array of local data. If we want to effect and track change, we must monitor the earth a millions of local points and integrate the data globally. This cannot be done by a small cadre of experts.

And I’m not just talking about monitoring the physical world. We must also keep track of our behavior, as individuals and as groups, private (corporations, both profit and non-profit) and public (agencies, legislative bodies, etc.). We are rapidly moving in on a world where research of some kind becomes open to all. Will it also become a responsibility of each one of us? If so, then those skills need to be taught. Here's a paper that describes an online course in research skills that's based on a graphic novel.

Where are we?

I began by observing that we are in a period of cultural change that will certainly change the world of higher education and the activity of research. Even as the training function migrates to online learning, the conduct of research is changing as well. On the one hand observational labor is being performed by large distributed groups of people and transmit their results through the internet to central institutions for aggregation and analysis. At the same time, the boundaries between credentialed experts and amateurs are being dissolved though a variety of online venues. Finally, matters of public policy, particularly concerning the environment and climate, require citizen participation through observation and deliberation.

As far as I can tell, we’re seeing nothing less than whole-scale changes in the way knowledge is created and transmitted. While the old institutions still dominate, change is afoot and probably cannot be stopped. Nor can it be predicted.

On the particular issues that concerned David Hays and I some three decades ago — disciplinary hegemony and resistance to change — I can see nothing definite on the horizon. To the extent that old institutions continue to dominate, the old boundaries remain in place and so, alas, do many of the old paradigms. No doubt they will fall, in time, for that is how things have gone in the past. The issue isn’t whether or not things will change, they will.

Will the new institutions be more fluid and nimble than the old? That’s the question. What can we do to ensure institutional fluidity?

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I'd appreciate links to any stories or projects you think are relevant to this general topic.

1 comment:

  1. Barry Solow posted a link to P2PU (Peer 2 Peer University) on my Facebook page: