Blog Post

Best Idea for Higher Ed Since About 2002


I just learned about an amazing project (still in Beta) sponsored by the Australian Eight, the eight largest national universities in the country,  called "The Conversation."  It may well be the most inspiring collaborative project I've heard about since about, oh, 2002-2003 (ie I'm joking of course--2002-2003 happens to be when HASTAC went from an "aha!" moment around a conference table to our first actual meeting as a collective; there are tons of other great ideas in higher ed, inc HASTAC's founding!).   The Conversation translates the best scholarly research into lively journalism.   It makes a giant step towards public intellectualism, taking HASTAC-ish principles of an online network of education innovators learning together in a public and open forum, to their logical (if highly curated) conclusion. Unlike HASTAC, the Conversation' has a team of professional editors, quite renowned in their collective experience.  They curate and select the best research from many fields produced by specialized academics and recasts it as journalism for the larger public as well as for academics in other fields.   They turn specialized scholarly research written originally for academic experts and peers into accessible, interesting, urgent, and sometimes even delightful fun and creative information for the public at large.  


At a time when higher education is under constant assault from legislators looking for places to cut public funding and from taxpayers who aren't sure that they are getting their money's worth from higher education, The Conversation makes abundantly clear--to that very public and to policy makers--the wealth of ideas that universities contribute to the good of society.


Anyone can learn from these engaging stories, including other teachers (at any level) and college students, high school kids, home schoolers, informal learners, Peer-to-Peer learners, lifelong learners, those who cannot afford college but deserve and desire access to the world of learning college (literally) affords.  I can imagine open access coursework built upon this foundation.   


Here's the url so you can explore this rich, full, and inspiring website for yourself:


Now, there are some drawbacks.   First, at present, The Conversation is heavily skewed towards science, technology, business, and policy.  This is not surprising given that the sponsoring, founding organization behind this is the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's national scientific research council.  Yet, when you look further, you find that CSIRO is very aware of this and is trying to find sponsorship to raise funds to support an arts and culture section, multimedia, investigative journalism, and other areas that broaden the focus.  When that happens, The Conversation will be much fuller and even more impressive.  And that's saying a lot, currently, with about 1600 contributors and a large staff of eminent editors, this is an epic endeavor.     

Kudos to all of you in Australia and at The Conversation and at CSIRO.   I hope this endeavor flourishes and has an impact on society, in Australia and worldwide.   Please let us know how HASTAC's network of scholars and students can contribute.   --I hope you flourish, have an impact, and I hope HASTAC Scholars and network members will contribute to your endeavor.   What you are doing is invaluable to the future of higher education.  


Here is the charter of The Conversation:

We will:
  • Unlock the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics to provide the public with clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.
  • Give experts a greater voice in shaping scientific, cultural and intellectual agendas by providing a trusted platform that values and promotes new thinking and evidence-based research.
  • Provide a fact-based and editorially-independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.
  • Create an open site for people around the world to share best practices and collaborate on developing smart, sustainable solutions.
  • Ensure quality, diverse and intelligible content reaches the widest possible audience by employing experienced editors to curate the site.
  • Ensure the site’s integrity by only obtaining non-partisan sponsorship from education, government and private partners. Any advertising will be relevant and non-obtrusive.
  • Work with our academic, business and government partners and our advisory board to ensure we are operating for the public good.
  • Support and foster academic freedom to conduct research, teach, write and publish.


Acknowledgment:  I learned about The Conversation via a Tweet from @toughloveforX, Michael Josefowicz, my favorite self-made scholar of educational reform, an invaluable resource to us all.   If you don't follow him, you should.   He has an amazingly expansive sense of learning and education, is a retired printer who has no axe to grind, institution to support, or implied loyalty.  Just a lot of learning, wisdom, common sense, and energy.  He doesn't mix words.  He isn't afraid to give an opinion.  Since I rarely disagree with his, I like that directness and forthrightness or, as he would say, lack of "bla blah."   I was so impressed by him that I profiled him in Now You See it. 



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and author of  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press), named by Publisher's Weekly "one of the top ten science books of Fall 2011."   NOTE:  The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization.  For more information, visit or go to by clicking on the book below.   To find out Cathy Davidson's 2011-2012 book tour schedule, visit

  [NYSI cover]



Thank you for the kind words. 

My thought is the example of the Conversation might show a path to revive and reinvent the "Public Intellectual." Aside from a very few exceptions the main stream media is not optimized or incented for "serious" conversation.

In the last few years this is starting to change again as PBS and NPR are experimenting with new business models to continue their expansion. The other new media to watch is Bloomberg Views. It's seems our Mayor has decided to become a publisher after his term expires. It's a natural for Bloomberg as the most serious conversations have always been among serious financial players with "skin in the game." I've always found it a model for opinions strongly expressed but lightly held.  In the stock markets it's pretty clear that it's all best guesses, scenerio planning and an unpredictable in detail future. It's helps create a climate of intelligence with uncertainty.

The challenge and opportunity is for the "rest of us." I was fascinated to learn that a writing constraint for the Conversations - according to my good tweep pal @readywriting - is that words have to be reported at an "8th grade level." That dovetails with the aims of Common Core as I understand them. Real literacy and numeracy for every - yes every - one.

Consider if the content from the Conversation -  with the addition of art and humanities  - became ubiquitious in high schools. If that content could be delivered on Paper it would be taken home, shared and become an object of consersation at home. Given the emerging print technology and the vaccuum in our Public Discourse it seems to me it's an opportunity to good for someone not to exploit.

Another thought to share, what if academics who participate might get "Public Intellectual Badges." Given my history and perspective, an I.F.Stone Badge for Public Service might be just right.


I tweeted this last #ecosys to a southern AB supt. 

I don't C "ed reform" as means2 end... goal shouldB perpetual, incremental imprvment- asymptote evolution- not revolution 

Claire P. is spot on IMO.

Ed reform will and should be messy, in a good way... where lines are hard to draw around who's who in the learning realm. We should all be on the same journey.


I think the "eighth grade level" limit is a brilliant idea.  And I'm proud that there are some junior high/middle school kids reading Now You See It right now---which I guess means I'm working to be able to reach that level too.  If you think it is easy to talk about cognitive neuroscience at a general level, think again!  It's the hardest thing I've ever done.  Clarity and explanation are teaching.   And they are far harder than writing for one' s peers.  I applaud any and every attempt to translate the best, smartest research for non-specialists, and I love the idea of turning these into curricular materials for all of us. 


Some people in my profession call this "dumbing down" but the trick is to never, ever underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but to also not assume they share your expertise and assumptions.   That is tricky and difficult. 



I particularly like these:


  • Provide a fact-based and editorially-independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.
  • Create an open site for people around the world to share best practices and collaborate on developing smart, sustainable solutions.

On a day when I am growing icreasingly weary of the biased and politically charged ed and higher ed reform rhetoric via Twitter and so many blog platforms, The Conversation is where we need to return.




I wonder if there is a possibility of some of the best research from teacher colleges might do a similar thing. Yesterday I stumbled across a thoughful piece at the Tenured Radical blog..

The point that caught my eye was

"Putting college and high school teachers in conversation about what the role of education is in a democracy must be a priority." 

It might be just the path to get a conversation about the humanities, philosophy and cognitive science into the conversation.