Of technology, its impact on scholarship

S. M. Rayhanul Islam | Published: June 07, 2018 21:28:19 | Updated: June 11, 2018 21:40:15

'Scholarship' is itself a quite old-fashioned term. Whenever we ask someone to think of scholarship, they usually imagine a lone individual, surrounded by books (preferably dusty ones), worriedly scribbling notes in a library. This is somewhat removed from the highly connected scholar, creating multimedia outputs and sharing these with a global network of peers. In fact, a rather tautological definition of scholarship is that it is what scholars do. And a 'scholar' can be defined as a learned person or a specialist in a given branch of knowledge. Traditionally, we are habituated to think of scholars as being academics, usually employed by universities. However, digital scholarship broadens this focus somewhat, since in a digital, networked, open world people become less defined by the institution to which they belong and more by the network and online identity they establish. Thus a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation. The democratisation of the online space opens up scholarship to a wider group, just as it opens up subjects that people can study beyond the curriculum defined by universities.

While industries such as music, newspapers, film and publishing around the world have seen radical changes in their business models and practices as a direct result of new technologies, higher education has so far resisted the wholesale changes we have seen elsewhere. However, a gradual and fundamental shift in the practice of academics is taking place globally. Of course, this is a period of transition for scholarship, as significant as any other in its history, from the founding of universities to the establishment of peer review and the scientific method. It is also a period that holds anxiety and even some paradoxes: it is both business as usual and yet a time of considerable change; individual scholars are being highly innovative and yet the overall picture is one of reluctance; technology is creating new opportunities while simultaneously generating new concerns and problems. The book 'The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice' by Martin Weller, a Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University, UK, explores these changes, their implications for higher education, the possibilities for new forms of scholarly practice and what lessons can be drawn from other sectors.

This book is divided into four major sections containing fourteen chapters. The first section, comprising chapter 1 to chapter 3, details the broad social context in which digital scholarship is taking place. Having made reference to the potential impact of new technologies and approaches in the first chapter, chapter 2 looks at some of the evidence for, and rhetoric surrounding, an imminent revolution in higher education. The third chapter examines other industries where digital, networked and open approaches have had a remarkable impact on established practice, including the music and newspaper industries. Possible similarities with higher education are examined and the key differences are also highlighted.

The second section, consisting of chapter 4 to 8, forms the main section of this book and is concerned with scholarship. The aim of this section is to demonstrate that such technology-influenced approaches can have an impact in all aspects of scholarship and are not restricted to one function, such as teaching, or a particular discipline. This section in particular addresses the question of how technology is changing practice. Chapter 4 draws on Boyer's 1990 study which proposed four scholarly functions, i.e. discovery, integration, application and teaching. Each of the subsequent chapters explores one of these functions and how the digital, networked, open approach can influence upon practice. Each chapter sheds light on just one demonstrative impact. For example, chapter 7 explores how public engagement can be viewed from a digital scholarship perspective, but public engagement is only one form of the application function. Similarly, chapter 8, which is concerned with Boyer's function of teaching, addresses the significance of a shift to abundant content and not all possible uses of technology for teaching.

The third section of the book, comprising chapter 9 to chapter 12, explores the scholarly context in more detail, focusing on key practices, and addressing the question of how digital scholarship could change practice. The purpose of this section is to return to the context within which digital scholarship exists, which was addressed in a broad sense in the first section, in order to focus more closely on the academic environment. There are a number of areas of apprehension for digital scholarship, for instance, between the use of new technologies and tenure processes which are based on traditional publications. Chapter 9 looks at the open education movement, the various definitions of openness currently in operation and some of the issues it raises. In chapter 10, using the metaphor of 'network weather', the author argues that even if an individual does not engage with new technology, its adoption by others is beginning to change the environment within which they operate, and the academic conference is an example of this. Chapter 11 is concerned with the process of reward and tenure, and the challenges digital scholarship poses for institutions. This theme is continued in the next chapter, which is focused on the publishing industry and its process, and in particular how open access publishing and the use of free communication tools are changing this core academic practice.

The concluding section of the book, consisting of chapters 13 and 14, addresses the issue of questions digital scholarship raises for all academics. Chapter 13 examines some of the issues and concerns about the adoption of new technologies and approaches. The final chapter continues this by addressing some of the reasons for anxiety surrounding digital scholarship and proposes a perspective based on 'digital resilience'. It is essential to acknowledge that the adoption of a digital, networked, open approach is not without its problems, and what is more we are at a stage when there is still considerable uncertainty as to how such approaches will have an effect on scholarship. The author concludes the book with the observation:     "Higher education is facing challenges beyond technological ones as funding models and the role of education in society come under scrutiny. Technology should not be seen as a panacea for all of these issues, but also we should not romanticise some scholarly Camelot of yesteryear either."

The writer is an independent researcher.

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