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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?

I had the opportunity to go and listen to Martin Weller (@mweller on twitter) and Nick Pearce (@drnickpearce) talking about their work on Digital Scholarship this morning.  I’d put together some thoughts last year on an earlier blog post – Digital scholarship and the challenges for libraries – so it was good to get an update on how the work is moving forward.

Digital Scholarship context
Nick Pearce set the context for Digital Scholarship with a short presentation – available on slideshare here.  Looking at technology first he set out the view that books and language could be viewed as ‘technologies’.   Books as a technology wasn’t too contentious for a room full of library people.  Language as a technology is a bit more of a stretch but if you view it as a tool to enable change in a community then it’s a good analogy.   His comment that ‘old technologies often persist – for good reasons’ was particularly interesting and the classic example is radio continuing alongside TV.   But I’d wonder if these two technologies are fulfilling exactly the same role or whether they have established different roles for themselves. 

Turning to digital technologies he pointed to the large number and wide variety of services.  Using Ludwig Gatzke’s image of the incredible range of web 2.0 services as an illustration of how this year’s favourite technology is next year’s history.  Many of the services shown in the image no longer exist and the list doesn’t show services such as twitter that are currently very popular. 

That points to a real risk that you choose to adopt a technology platform that turns about to be transient or you find that ‘a year later everyone has moved on’.

Nick then looked at some of the key features of the digital environment and suggested that only a small number of users were actually creating content (which gives me pause for thought given the enormous growth that sites like YouTube are experiencing with user-generated content), and that you are relying on sites that are in perpetual evolution, effectively constantly in beta-testing.


Technologies, issues and challenges
Turning to scholarship and using Boyer’s “Scholarship reconsidered” model we started to briefly look at what technologies, issues and challenges might present themselves for the four elements of Boyer’s model.

  • Discovery
  • Integration
  • Application
  • Teaching

Ideas that came up include the ever-increasing amount of data (data deluge), challenges in economics and funding, and issues around social networking.   Nick went on to give some examples of Open Data (e.g., Open Publishing (the Open access movement), Open engagement through blogs and twitter feeds from people such as Richard Dawkins, and Open education (Open Learn and OERs).

“the Open Scholar is someone who makes their intellectual projects and processes digitally visible and who invites and encourages ongoing criticism of their work and secondary uses of any or all parts of it–at any stage of its development.”  Academic Evolution

Digital Scholarship work
Martin Weller then took us through the work that is being carried out to investigate digital scholarship.  This comprises three elements:

  • promote digital scholarship
  • work on recognition 
  • research current practice

It was interesting to hear of the work to create a new digital scholarship hub DISCO that is being launched shortly, and good to get a brief preview of it.  Martin talked about his aim to formulate some kind of ‘magical metric to measure digital scholarship’ and it would be interesting to see how this sort of scoring system could be used – take the scorecard along to your appraisal with the results?   Aims included trying to decide what represented good public engagement and working on case studies that academics could use as part of their promotion case. 

Martin briefly covered some of the issues around digital scholarship including issues around rights, skills, plagiarism, time and quality/depth.  We then spent a little time looking at issues, benefits and what we’d like to change.  The sorts of things that our group talked about included: difficulties of getting people to engage; the lack of awareness of what the technology can do and concerns about quality in comparing peer-reviewed journals with blogs, for example.  For the library we thought there was a fit around the library increasingly focusing on electronic rather than print resources but there are challenges around managing and curating access to material in social networking environments that may be ephemeral.   The issue of persistent identifiers to this type of material is a real concern.

Finally, in an all too brief session, Martin flagged up the JISC Digital Scholarship ‘Advanced Technologies for Research’ event on 10 March 2010.

It was interesting that the presenters had slightly different perspectives on Digital Scholarship.   It would have been good to have a bit more time to talk through some of the discussions and have more feedback, but time was a bit limited.  It is fascinating to hear at first hand some of the work that is taking place to map out equivalencies between traditional academic practice and potentially new academic practices.  It would be good to get some of the counter-arguments as to why some people don’t think that blogs and suchlike are equivalent to traditional practice.

For libraries the issues are especially around discovery and providing access to the material.  A colleague made the point that librarians can’t evaluate the content in a blog as they don’t have the subject knowledge.  At present evaluation of resources is as much down to evaluating the quality of the publishing medium, e.g. it’s in Nature or a reputable resource so it should be appropriate.  With blogs librarians don’t have that context to use.

And the other big issue for libraries is persistence of links.  A whole technology industry has grown up around these problems e.g. SFX, OpenURLs, DOIs etc etc and work is going to be needed to work out the implications of content migrating from a few hundred aggregrated collections of peer-reviewed academic journals to many thousands of individual resources in the cloud.  But maybe this is where technologies such as Mendeley come in?

Listening to a thought-provoking presentation by Martin Weller recently  on ‘Blogging and Academic Identity’ raised a few questions about the challenges that digital scholarship sets for libraries.

Broadly, the idea is that some academics are increasingly building an academic identity using social networking tools.  Essentially they are building academic networks in the web 2.0 environment and are starting to publish to the web as an alternative to traditional academic publishing models.

For libraries a model of academic output that uses blogs, slideshare and flickr as much as peer-reviewed learned journals represents a major challenge and potentially leads to a fundamental rethinking of how libraries approach the management of resources.  Some of the issues include:

  • the potentially ephemeral nature of blogs, forums and other shared-spaces
  • how do librarians evaluate the value of material published in ‘social academia’?
  • how do librarians track down relevant links in blogs and evaluate the significance?
  • what about conversations that take place in shared spaces amongst networks of academics?
  • who is first to cite a twitter-stream? as  evidence of thoughts or concepts

The potentially ephemeral nature of web content in the social networking arena brings to mind the world of antiquity where our knowledge of some of the great ‘ lost works’ of ancient literature are only known to us by references to them in later works.   A curious situation for the 21st century

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January 2021

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