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On a difficult day for Higher Education with the Comprehensive Spending Review slashing public funding for the Sector by unprecedented amounts there was an interesting counterpoint in thinking about the future in a session on the challenges to academic practice presented by the rise of digital technologies.    Described as a fundamental change in academic and student practice the session delivered a wide range of different perspectives on digital scholarship, digital libraries and digital literacy. 

It was particularly interesting to hear very different perspectives from personal academic practice, through case studies in Africa, to the thoughts about information literacy vs digital literacy.   A couple of comments particularly got my attention. Firstly that new entrants to the whole e- and distance learning sector are ‘born digital’ with no legacy processes or practices from the non-digital age.  They have set themselves up to work in that environment, don’t have the baggage of courses that have been presented for six years or more and still show their history from the days of ‘your course materials are in the box’.  They are flexible, agile and a serious competitor.

The other comment particularly made me reflect on this whole area of the digital user experience – that there was as yet ‘no perfect storm of demand’ for changes in student and academic practice to embrace the digital agenda (or rather to replace current academic and student practices).  Reflecting on that comment it seems that students ‘buy-in’ to an academic set of practices that maybe they see as being the hallmarks of a university education.  They accept the particular model of learning even though (or maybe because) it may be very different to how they learnt at school.  Although students may be active users of twitter or facebook that hasn’t yet filtered through to an insistent demand that university practices should move to those environments.

But – now the numbers (and percentage) of younger students at my institution is growing quickly (and likely to grow further still) – and in the future those students might be paying more and are likely to be more demanding in getting a quality experience – are we going to see a change in their expectations about what a course looks like?  How assessments and support are provided? How they engage with tutors, or work collaboratively with their fellow students?  Is this an area where research is being undertaken to shape what future learning systems might look like?

Over the past year and a bit I’ve been working with the team at the OU working on the Telstar project. Earlier today we ran the second Innovations in Reference Management event and coming home on the train I had a few thoughts about the two IRM events (in Milton Keynes in a snowy January and in a much warmer Birmingham today). www.open.ac.uk/blogs/telstar/

Today’s well-attended event in a really nice location in the centre of Birmingham (http://www.studiovenues.co.uk/) covered a wide spectrum of reference management aspects: from digital literacy, through different reference management systems, to referencing for the web and citing datasets, to practical sessions on systems in use.

Before we had the first event in January we did have a moment of doubt that there was sufficient interest in reference management. The answer, with over 100 attendees across the two events (and with more than 300 members signed up to the recently created Jiscmail list Reading-List-Solutions https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A0=READING-LIST-SOLUTIONS) seems to be a fairly unqualified yes. And that got me wondering about what it was that was driving that interest.

So a few ideas about what might be driving that interest.

Firstly, there are an increasing number of different solutions. Increasingly the personal and local systems are being supplanted by web and collaborative ones. Some Mendeley (http://www.mendeley.com/) and Zotero (http://www.zotero.org) come out of the needs of researchers, others such as the Aspire reading list solution (http://www.talis.com/aspire/) come out of library requirements. But there are many more systems and much more interest.

Secondly, there are a range of different people who are interested in these systems – librarians, academics, researchers, information literacy people, technical people and data curators

Then there’s a big information and digital literacy aspect of reference management with interest around fostering good academic and pedagogical practice, around digital scholarship and around tackling plagiarism by fostering an understanding of why students should cite the sources they use.

Next there’s the whole area (and something that is growing more and more important) about reuse, efficiency savings, not reinventing the wheel, improving workflows and about not doing unnecessary or duplicating work

And finally, there’s a lot of innovation in this area. From traditional systems moving to the web or introducing APIs, to the new web-native players such as Zotero and Mendeley, to the challenges around citing new types of material. All of which indicates an area of increasing interest.

So there’s a challenge here. Telstar, almost incidentally, through the two IRM events has managed to help to identify a community of interest and practice. The Reading-List-Solutions jiscmail list may give that nascent community a longer-term voice after the Telstar project ends, and perhaps it is wishful thinking to suggest that ‘Innovations in Reference Management’ might be an idea that should live on?

Thanks to Owen and everyone who has worked on the various bits of the Telstar project through early ideas, through development to the present day.

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