Scholarship in the digital age #coltt2009

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 12, 2009

I’m blogging today from another conference — the Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology (COLTT) conference. The keynote speaker is Richard Katz, the VP of Educause.

It’s an old story by now that digital technology has completely changed how we access media — nobody under 30 reads newspapers, and newspapers haven’t responded with a new business model to allow them to generate revenue from online sources.  The advent of Craig’s List is the canonical example of this — the newspapers lost their classifieds revenue by not taking Craig’s List seriously.  They thought their corner of the market was secure.  As Colbert said, “Knock knock.”  “Who’s there?”  “The death of newspapers.”

Is that fair?  Will we see the death of newspapers in our lifetime?  It seems likely. News reporting as an enterprise won’t die, of course, but newspapers as an institution (not just an industry) seem to be going the way of the dodo.

We also have more computing power and functionality than ever before.  Consider the iPhone — it’s breathtaking when juxtaposed with the mainframes of decades before.  And digital technology has certainly changed how science communicates.  Think about how scientists communicated in the age of Einstein.  Ideas were communicated via handwritten letter, sent through traditional post. Nowadays we can get 10 colleagues’ comments on a paper, within a day, with tracked changes.  This has been very liberating for the exchange of scientific ideas.  We can advance faster, perhaps, today, with the ease of communication.  (On the other hand, it takes so much time to keep up with all the communication, much of which is watered-down in content because it’s too darned easy, so does it come out in the wash?).

Katz’ bottom line:  technology is reducing the amount of busy-work in the scientific enterprise by making things easier.  I’m sure that’s true, though there are some new kinds of busy-work that it creates.  I know that my brain often feels fragmented, it’s harder to focus with the huge streams of information flow — listservs, blogs, emails, and papers. I believe (and I’ve seen some research to suggest it) that technology is changing the way my brain works (and not for the better) resulting in reduced attention span and all that.  Katz cautions that now there is so much information, too, that we’re exposed to a lot of disinformation.  We use truthiness to intuitively sift among all the different stories out there.  It’s impossible to apply logical analysis to the entire internet firehose, so we have to resort to heuristics to decide what to believe.  We also resort to the wisdom of the crowd to decide what to believe (eg., ratemyprofessor.com).

Katz also says that we’re workig harder now, as academics, than ever before.  Academics are burning out at high rates, and we’re becoming less civil as a result.

What about our students?  I’ve posted before on the impact of the digital age on our classrooms.  Students aren’t coming to class as much, he says, and so we need to use new media to its best effect to help promote this declining engagement. Why haven’t we figured out how to use digital technology to do decentralized education, he asks?  Even in the Open University, (an entirely online university) students aren’t showing up in the organized chat rooms.  This is something we need to figure out how to do well.

The take-home message isn’t too surprising — digital technology is always getting better, and it’s allowing us to do profoundly big things.  However, the scholarship enterprise needs to adapt to the new technology, and the modern university will likely change to reflect these new technologies.  Universities are likely to be less about “place,” and more situated in virtual environments.

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