Science communication #scicom #wecom #komnaarbuiten

Yesterday I attended Kom naar Buiten, a day on science communication organised by VLIR-UOS (the department of the Flemish Interuniversity Council, focussed on development cooperation). The day brought together scientists from different disciplines and press officers and science journalists from different media. It was a very interesting day, where I met people from quite different backgrounds and interests in this field.

What everyone seems to agree on though, is that science communication is necessary – certainly more of it is needed! However, what the purpose of it is and how it can be done, is up for discussion.

Here are some practical tips that I picked up across the day

(note: these are tips for going to mass media – but they may be applicable for other target groups/ non-researchers in general):

  • Katleen Bracke (VRT) explained what her work looks like. It was quite unexpected to hear that science journalists in the broadcast media (and maybe print media is similar) have less than a minute (45sec to be exact!) to convince their editors of the news value of an item. Keeping that in mind, it is clear that when scientists approach the media with something interesting, they need to be able to explain in one sentence, why the news is important, why its relevant and why we should give our attention to it.
  • Hetty Helsmoortel referred to the key concepts of  Content (why does it matter?) Clarity (explain it in simple terms) and Charisma (explain it with passion).  Her tips: tell a story, do not restrict yourself to your own research and dare to step out of your comfort zone.
  • Think of oneliner messages that people should take away from your input (Ann Dooms)
  • It is important to think about when you communicate (after publication, but not too often) (Tim Nawrot)
  • Convey your passion for the topic (Herwig Leirs)
  • It’s ok to be incomplete (in academic terms) – find a balance between giving insight into the research but not going too much in the details.
  • Link up with what is in the news and it’s ok to use buzzwords (they draw attention of the science journalist, the deciding editors and the public)
  • When writing a press release, add quotes and mimic the writing style of a newspaper article. This increases the likelihood that your text is taken on as is (with minimal editing). (In this way, you can have more control over how your work is presented in the media).
  • If the media call you for reactions, it will happen in the first 24 hours after the press release. When they do, be available, be prepared with your message and bring on the enthusiasm.

science communication

Some reflections from my side:

Throughout the day I kept thinking of what the value of communicating about your research in the mass media is. I guess it is an issue of what you want to do as an academic and what you want the target audience to take away.

As with the any use of media for communicating, I think it’s important to think about who you are communicating with and what the goal of the communication is. It may therefore be important to identify the target groups and networks of the target groups that you want to reach.

Apart from this, there is a question of the role you want to play in society as an academic. For me that role is one of opinion-making, deepening the content of a discussion, and providing reflection and nuance on your topic. For these issues, I would certainly reach out to the mass media, and I guess this requires a different sort of reputation building as a academic. What I learnt from this event, is that to achieve that goal, you would need to play by the rules of the mass media (including recognising newsworthiness, entertainment-value, etc.), but maintain your quality as a researcher. In fact, I think if you succeed, you would not only make a difference to public opinion, but also, make your research more relevant to societal needs.

And finally, can we hear some more from researchers in the humanities please??? 🙂

(Disclaimer: I did miss the closing session…)

Must read

Saving Science by Daniel Sarewitz

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Open Badges: why use new tools for supporting old (and maybe outdated) formats?

Ever since I participated in Tim Riches’s workshop on Open Badges at the PLE Conference in 2013 (Berlin), I have been fascinated with the seemingly endless possibilities of this instrument.
For the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to get closer to the development of an Open Badge set for recognising intercultural competences acquired through student exchanges (through the GO2B project).

Today, I attended a session on this topic at the Onderwijsdagen, organised by SURF in Rotterdam, where they presented a white paper on how Open Badges could potentially be used in the Dutch educational system. The presentation, but also, the reactions from members of the audience were very enlightening.
Some of my observations:

1. The strength of Open Badges in my view is their simplicity: they give a framework for accrediting well-defined skills and competences, but stay away from dictating the content of these skills and competences. Seen in this way, Open Badges define the process rather than the outcome. And this makes them highly useable for very different fields of application.
2. The value of a Badge is defined by the community it is supported by. Outside this community it may not have much perceived value (but couldn’t you say the same of degrees?)
3. As an instrument, Open Badges are particularly suited to support peer learning and peer feedback/ peer assessment practices. However, this particular strength is not picked up on by many… I wonder why….
4. In the same line of thought: from the learners’ perspective, Open Badges not only help them structure their own learning path, but also teach them to critically look at others’ work and give (constructive) feedback. In other words, these instruments help them self-regulate their own learning and be valued partners in their peers’ learning. I haven’t seen many other scalable practices that do that.

So, in short, my key observation is: why do we not use the opportunities that Open Badges give to push the boundaries of the current educational system, beyond the degree system that we have now?

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Some thoughts on yesterday

I am not afraid, I am not afraid, I am not afraid” – This is what I kept saying to myself in the hour after hearing about the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Being more than 1600 kms away, from my family, my first thoughts were on how to get home as soon as possible. Whereas till then my concerns on this first journey away from my daughter was on “has she eaten?“, “has she slept?” and “I hope she’s not too naughty“, they now turned to “when will I see her?“.

And what irony, that I was travelling to attend a project meeting on developing and acknowledging intercultural competence – the knowledge, skills, attitudes and self-awareness that enable someone to truly understand and acknowledge, tolerate and accept (sometimes fundamentally) different points of view.

With the wonderful panel discussion at the Media and Learning Conference (with Renee Hobs, Rudi VrankxMoad El Boudaati, Divina Frau-Meigs and Karin Heremans) earlier this month, my head was just ringing with thoughts to make sense of reality throughout the journey home. Luckily, I was accompanied by four experienced teachers and expert educators. Here are some of my thoughts after my discussions with them:

  • The feeling of being accepted as part of a community and society is crucial to well-being of individuals and society as a whole. Many young people today do not feel part and this is a problem.
  • Young people also do not have a voice in the current popular media in Europe (as Divina Frau-Meigs explains so well in the panel discussion). With no voice, there is no recognition of their role in society; no debate on their perspectives on our world. Giving them a voice and acknowledging their issues has to part of any solution.
  • There is a tendency to react in panic with “us” and “them“-logic. This may be a natural initial reaction, but it should not inform policies or long-term strategies (on a state-level) nor attitudes, acceptance and tolerance (on an individual level).
  • More and guided intercultural interactions where young people are encouraged to talk about their inhibitions, prejudices and uncertainties in an open manner should take place. In fact, every learner should at some point have the opportunity to reflect on their intercultural skills together with a mentor/ more experienced person. Too often, this happens now through individual initiatives (of teachers, or personal interest) but some learners will not do this naturally, and they should.
  • Understanding that you are shaped by multiple cultures, and have multiple identities is an essential part of becoming intercultural competence (check out the manual created by the IEREST project on this). My note here is that multiple identities are often seen as problematic, whereas they could be (and should be) seen as an opportunity. In current Belgian (and European) society, many young people are shaped by different cultures and so, manage multiple identities. These young people are the ones who will shape our societies in the future. As parents, teachers, educators, government and corporate leaders, we have to support them in having the confidence to take up their roles in society as strong adults – and acknowledge that they are an essential part of our society.

At this moment, I only have the following wish for all our countries:

Where The Mind Is Without Fear (Rabindranath Tagore, 1912 – Bengali original, 1910)

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, My Father, let my country awake.

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Some updates

It’s been a long time since I blogged, but I have some valid excuses!! 🙂 (Is there ever such a thing?)

1. I finished my PhD
I finally got there. After some weeks of getting my head down and writing, writing, writing, I submitted my thesis and defended it. Some more details on my research work are on this page. If you would like a copy of my thesis, do get in touch.
But this was also more than a year ago… so what’s been keeping me busy since then?

2. I became a mommy!
This has been the biggest change in my life. My daughter has been putting me through a whole new learning experience, that involves a lot of creativity, patience and little sleep.

3. I started a new job
Since a couple of months, I have been working as an assistant professor at the Open Universiteit. I have been working on some topics that are very different from my original research, so it has taken me some time to settle in.

So, you can expect some regular updates from now on.

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Workshop #PLEConf: Do you want to Connect? Recommendation Strategies for Personal Learning Networks

Last week, my colleague and supervisor Jan van Bruggen and I conducted a workshop on recommendation strategies at the PLE conference in Berlin. The conference itself was also very interesting but I will blog about it in a separate post. In this post, I will describe the workshop.

Our workshop focussed on recommendation strategies for social networks supporting Personal Learning Networks. Below you find my presentation.


The reasoning behind the research we conducted and the topic of the workshop is that current recommendation systems look for navigating through the abundance of people and resources out there. To minimize the choices, they are therefore created to look for items or people similar to the user. However, for learning, this may not be the most relevant strategy. For learning purposes, you would actually like to look at people or items that are related to whatever you are interested in, but that are different in some significant way. This difference creates an interest and a learning opportunity. In our workshop, we presented two methodologies to match people on similarity and on dissimilarity.

The workshop was very interesting from my point of view, for various reasons:

  1. It was very interesting to see that even in the select group of participants of our workshop, we could see very different types of matches emerging, by using the different methodologies.
  2. As we asked the participants to basically do the computer’s work, it was funny to see how quickly they brought in other, more intelligent steps to improve recommendations. We had to be quite strict in forcing them to follow the computer’s rules. As a designer, it certainly showed me the limitations of the technical side and, of course, our natural intelligence 🙂
  3. What I also liked was how quickly the participants had seemed to make up their mind about whom of the other participants to  connect with. Although we asked them to choose just one or two, most of them revealed to us afterwards that such a choice was difficult to make (although some did indicate initial preferences). Also, it was clear that such choices were dependent on a whole range of things, from professional to personal to other.

My reflections on the PLE conference will follow soon.

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