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Digital Education

Image saying LEARNHistorically the figure of the “scholar” is represented as a lonely figure, ploughing through libraries and scratching away at learned treatises late into the night, emerging only occasionally to attend a conference, or give a lecture to students sitting rapt at their feet.  Such a picture was never accurate as the most successful scholars always networked and fed on ideas from colleagues, although there is an element of truth in it too. Certainly scholarship does involve a lot of reading. It involves a lot of writing too. The conquest of working life by digital technology has not changed that, though it has changed the means by which scholarship is produced. (It is a rare scholar who produces their papers with a fountain pen.)

There are some aspects of scholarship that have been changed profoundly and CERD has been active in supporting colleagues in developing their work. Perhaps the most significant change that digitisation has wrought for an academic researcher is the ability to get their work more widely known. The traditional route of getting journal articles published is slow, difficult, and has very high barriers to access, especially for the lone researcher. Reliance on that route means that finding others who are working on your topic can be difficult. Blogging about your research, or setting up alerts to find out what else is being done in your field, and by whom, is one way of becoming known, and perhaps finding collaborators. It does not happen overnight. It takes time, and engagement to build up a network using social media, just as it takes time and engagement to become proficient in a discipline.

A change that is perhaps more mundane, but not insignificant is the huge increase in scholarly material that has become available. Huge volumes of historic journal articles are now available online, far more than any university library could have held on its shelves. Admittedly, these are often stored behind pay walls, accessible only to members of universities, but they are much more accessible than they ever were.  It’s not just journal articles or even other textual products that are more accessible.  CERD has been working on a project to make research datasets more accessible, since data is at the heart of research, and with increasing tools available to visualise data in new and different ways, even the definition of what constitutes a research output is being challenged.

Many of the new technological tools used by digital scholars are not under institutional control in the sense that anyone can sign up for accounts with Google, You Tube, Flickr, Twitter, and many others. Of course, there is, as with traditional scholarship, a price to pay in terms of engagement, and learning to use these tools, but it does mean that anyone can be a digital scholar, because there is little cost in trying these out and moving from one to another and in most cases they are powerful enough to access databases of journals, communicate with others, and in some cases even produce work. The growth of “apps” for smartphones and tablet computers may also have some implications for institutional computing, since much scholarship can be delivered through staff and students’ own devices, removing the need to provide a large number of terminals in libraries and computer rooms, although we may be some years away from that situation

Finally digital scholarship is likely to have consequences for traditional academic publication. Since researchers are collaborating openly, intellectual property laws are becoming something of an obstacle. You are much less likely to comment on my work if you have to pay a fee to my publisher to access it and of course it isn’t likely to get published if it’s a work in progress. So, a model of publishing has evolved where scholars can license their work. While they retain the formal copyright in their work, they grant permission for it to be re-used, under certain conditions, most commonly that their work is properly attributed. This has led to even more collaboration between scholars, and the development of new teaching practices online, most notably the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. If the best way to learn about something is to teach it, it follows that teaching is an important purpose of scholarship, and digital scholarship is no exception.

A blog post such as this can hardly do justice to the complex concepts of digital scholarship and it would be very unscholarly to pretend that there are no debates around the concepts and issues it raises. A good place to go for further reading is Martin Weller’s book “The Digital Scholar: How technology is transforming scholarly practice” which following the precepts of openness discussed above can be read on line for free. (Although you can buy a copy too if you really feel the need!)

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