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PhD 3.0: Why research students have to be gardeners, curators, and selectors of knowledge

By Dr Nick Hopwood

This blog is about skills that research students need to have today to make use of unprecedented learning opportunities and availability of knowledge via the internet.

I have just come out of a session I ran with UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences new research students. (These include PhD, Masters by Research, Doctor/Master of Creative Arts, and Doctor in Education, but I tend to use ‘PhD’ as a shorthand for all of these, because it seems to be what people search for most online).

My aim was to give them a sense of what is out there online for postgrad research students, as well as what is in the various UTS intranet sites (so they don’t have to annoy our staff with questions where the answers are already online).

From PhD 1.0 to PhD 3.0

PhD 1.0 was before my time (just) – when everything was paper based. Before the internet. Yes, people actually managed to make contributions to knowledge without email and online access to journals. They went to libraries and read hard copies, and have offices with shelves full of journals they paid to subscribe to.

PhD 2.0 was my era (I did my PhD 2003-2006). Lots of journals had started going online – new issues were often available digitally, although the older ones hadn’t been digitised yet. This made being lazy, staying at home or in my office, easier, but didn’t have the social interaction and user input we associate with the internet these days.

PhD 3.0 is what we have now. Nearly all journal papers and many books are now digitised (offering instant access, albeit with barriers around licences and payment that unequally and unfairly privilege some while disadvantaging others). But now, this is not just about one-way traffic, but about interaction. There are alt-metrics that track how many times people tweet or mention publications. There are webinars synchronously linking people all over the world, and blogs and twitter feeds that asynchronously allow us to have conversations and debates, as well as sharing resources with each other.

This is what I mean by unprecedented opportunity and knowledge flows. But with this comes new forms of skill, expertise and responsibility for students.

Decentred universities in virtually figured worlds

This all sounds rather hoity-toity doesn’t it? Well I wish I could claim the words are mine, but they’re not. They are from Russell Francis, with whom I shared an office when doing my PhD (happy days, Russ!). Based on his PhD he wrote a brilliant book (published by Routledge). He sat with students at uni (undergrads and postgrads) and watched what they did.

What he realised was that the uni, and face to face contacts, were not the ‘centre’ of their learning universe. They were an important part of a dynamic, adapting and evolving set of knowledge flows and connections that extended well beyond campus. His ‘virtually figured worlds’ included blogs, online and offline affinity groups, people interacting via emails, and other on- and offline platforms. An idea in this book points to the main thrust of this blog post, and what I was wanting to impress on our new research students today…

Cultivating and curating globally distributed funds of (living and digitally mediated) knowledge

More hoity toity words! But there’s a really serious point here, and this brings me back to my title.

With all that information out there, research students these days need to develop and deploy specific skills. Otherwise you’ll end up spending all day being busy reading twitter feeds but accomplishing nothing.

Gardening knowledge funds

What I mean by this is planting seeds, cultivating their growth, nurturing connections. This might be personal relationships with other students or academics around the world working on similar topics. This might be ‘software discipline’ in terms of setting up twitter feeds or automatic journal table of contents emails, but then modifying them as things come in and out of your sphere of relevance. This is definitely not about just adding more and more. You will have to cut, chop, weed out. Hence the gardening idea.

Curating knowledge funds

I like the idea of curating: it implies taking care, paying attention, management. This is not just about controlling what you’re bombarded with when you open your inbox, log into twitter etc. It’s about being respectful of yourself and the authors of the knowledge you are digesting. This might be adding a comment to say thanks for a really amazing blog post [hint, hint], or politely engaging in constructive critique to open up debate. It might be retweeting something you think is really useful to your followers. It is also thinking (as a museum curator would) about display – how you access, arrange, and represent all the information you’re dealing with, so you can cope with it and make good choices. Which leads me to…

Selecting knowledge funds

There’s *quite* a lot of information on the internet. You need to make choices. You need to make good choices. What counts as good will change, frequently. Back in PhD 1.0 there were lots of journals to read, but the physicality of it meant often part of the struggle was one of access rather than needing to filter out. Now more than ever, researchers need a really good filter: what to read (or what to read in full, what to skim, what to cheat read/pretend to have read), what not to read, what to reply to, what not to reply to etc.

This requires you to be discerning with your globally distributed funds of knowledge. What adds real value? What can you get there that you can’t get anywhere else? What is nice but not necessary?

And finally, a plug for my hero

Perhaps my biggest intellectual hero is Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist from the Soviet Union who died in 1934. I won’t get started on why his ideas are amazing. But there’s a real link here. He talked about how when we work on problems using tools (which can be ideas, concepts, twitter feeds, blogs etc), not only does that change our approach to working on a problem, but it changes us, too. Things we use to get things done (to do work), work back on us.

So if we use globally distributed funds of knowledge uncritically, and unthinkingly, then those actions work back on us and turn our brains into things that are full of unsorted, mixed quality (at best) sludge.

What we, as human beings, can do, is use this principle pro-actively. We can arrange tools, put them in place, make them available, with the intention that doing so will affect us or our behaviour in some positive way. You can put a link on your web browser to a blog you should read. You can set up a journal TOC alert so you don’t forget a particular aspect or topic. You can commit to a meeting with your supervisor so you can’t procrastinate any longer. You can stick a post-it on your wall saying ‘stop checking facebook!’ or disconnect your laptop when you’re writing so you’re not tempted to check emails.

These are all very Vygotskian practices: controlling ourselves from the outside in.

So, PhD 3.0 is about being a good ‘gardener’ of knowledge – from a range of sources (planting, watering, weeding etc!),  not just being a repository, a sponge that soaks it all up, but being Vygotskian and taking control of your own learning from the outside – whether that outside is another person you meet face to face, someone you email, a dead guy (like Vygotksy for me!), a twitter feed, whatever.

Make this 3.0

In your comment below, share where you get your knowledge from, how you know it’s good and worthy of your attention. What do you do to cultivate, curate and discern? Do you use any Vygotskian techniques – controlling your behaviour from the outside? Share!


Dr Nick Hopwood
Associate Professor, Adult Learning, and Applied Linguistics Program, University of Technology Sydney. This post was originally published on his Blog Roll


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