INF537: Assignment 2 – Examining Digital Scholarship

Provide an interpretive discussion that examines digital scholarship in education, in the context of interdisciplinary knowledge and research.

In 2013, Edward Ayers, one of the early adopters of digital humanities projects, argued that to foster digital scholarship we need to understand how cultural, institutional, economic and personal factors impact it (Ayers, 2013). Ayers believed that by understanding the context for the issues facing digital scholarship, we could begin to address them. The term “digital scholarship” has grown to mean many things since its inception but this essay defines it as scholars who employ a workflow that is open, digital and networked, to create outputs in a range of digital formats that are of benefit both to academia and society (Weller, 2017). This essay will discuss Ayers’ view on how cultural, institutional, economic and personal factors were impacting digital scholarship and discuss how the environment has changed from 2013 to 2019. This essay argues that although cultural and institutional challenges have remained very similar, the economic and personal challenges to the adoption of digital scholarship have radically shifted in the six years since Ayers’ article and there are now structures in place to ensure that it can thrive in the years ahead.

The cultural pressures facing digital scholarship are perhaps the most immovable of the four factors outlined by Ayers (2013). The “monographic culture” of higher education is rooted in centuries of history and one that has stood the test of time (Ayers, 2013). The invention of digital books and online articles have predominantly mirrored this monographic culture, perpetuating expectations of how scholarly writing is presented. Ayers argued that cultural factors would only start to be overcome when there were powerful examples of the benefits of the digital medium. The number of these examples has grown exponentially over the past six years.  Projects such as A global guide to the First World War by The Guardian have shown mainstream newspapers that they can display digital information in ways that blend multimedia with narrative ( et al., 2014). However, outside of these pockets of innovation, the argument outlined by Ayers still resonates. Twenty seven years afters Ayers’ first digital project, The Valley of the Shadow, the monographic culture continues to be by far the most popular method for scholarly communication (Schreibman, Siemens, & Unsworth, 2016). There are scholars who predict the end of the current monographic culture and foresee the merging of artificial intelligence writing with interactive apps, video games and virtual worlds but currently that vision seems more akin to science fiction (Lanier, 2014). Without a sudden and unforeseen change, existing cultural approaches will dictate the expected style of scholarly output for decades.

Higher learning institutions have seen very little evolution from the world described by Ayers (2013), with limited numbers of universities embracing the potential of digital scholarship and even fewer viewing it as something to be considered when making decisions about tenure and career advancement. As universities are such large institutions, for them to create and support a holistic framework that enables digital scholarship will take years and this creates more generations of university scholars who view the status quo as appropriate scholarly practice (Risam, 2018). Institutions could benefit from digital scholarship through increased awareness of their work and applying new methodology to problems that have been tackled the same way for generations but to realise this opportunity, universities must support its scholars in their efforts. This support includes providing the networking tools, training and support to ensure that there is a shared understanding of digital scholarship and the rights and responsibilities of those involved (Raffaghelli, 2017). Institutions should also have clear guidelines for how they reward and value digital scholarship and digital media has the capacity to measure these targeted goals with analytics providing the user metrics and engagement statistics (Cabrera, Roy, & Chisolm, 2018). Any changes to the institutional framework would have to consider an update to the peer review model. With digital scholarship and open access making it possible to conduct research without the need for ethics proposals, the time taken to publish some work has been dramatically reduced, allowing a post publication review to complement the existing peer-review model by allowing for open feedback, continuous improvement and a strengthening of content quality (Cabrera et al., 2018; Silva & Dobránszki, 2015). The way that colleges and universities have mobilised relatively quickly to deliver massive online open courses (MOOCs) show that digital progress is possible in the right circumstances (Ayers, 2013). There is evidence of progress in the digital scholarship sphere with key institutions trying to tackle the issues that prevent the adoption. Stanford have embraced the possibilities of digital products that use interactive non-traditional mediums, creating a section within the Stanford University Press that partners with academics to aid in the design, creation, presentation and archiving of digital products. This partnership tries to break down the walls that prevent digital products from being viewed as scholarly work by allowing for formal peer-review and tackling issues such as long-term accessibility, a hallmark of traditional products but an elusive problem for digital scholarship (Harvey, 2017).  Progress is slow but with key institutions tackling long-held impediments to change, it may only take a few more universities to join before there is a sudden rush to digital scholarship adoption, mirroring what happened with MOOCs a decade ago.

The economic factors influencing digital scholarship are framed by the commercial pressures that face the modern day academic. Ayers (2013), in his article chose not to interrogate economic factors of digital scholarship beyond the challenges of acquiring funding for a digital project from an organisation; however, the maturation of the education technology industry has meant that in 2019, the market forces are likely to play a role in scholastic work (Huggett, 2019). Although digital scholars may endeavour for their work to be open, many of the tools used to share their work and network are owned by commercial entities who have their own agenda and can co-opt the content shared on their system (Weller, 2017). One such example is the anti-plagiarism tool Turnitin that monetises the content uploaded by students (Morris, 2017). The commercialisation and walling off of content generated by scholars reduces ambitions for openness (Weller, 2017). For companies that do not manage to turn their vision in to a sustainable product then the network can either be closed or sold, losing years of academic content, discussion and debate. As education technology companies look to realise a profit from their investment in the sector, the neoliberal society that we live in is exerting a powerful influence on digital scholarship. Open educational resources (OER) are currently seen by many as a way to both promote digital scholarship and fight against the capitalist approach to education that has evolved (Jones, 2019). Ayers (2013) viewed MOOCs as a concept that could help disrupt the stranglehold that universities and companies had on education; however, a few years after their peak, the same enthusiasm does not seem to exist for MOOCs. The same may well be true for OER as their voluntary nature means that they are often not able to reach the size or complexity that can consistently allow civic action to compete with commercial interests (Jones, 2019). To enable openness to prosper requires government to introduce policy and legislative reform and some Governments have started this process by mandating that publicly funded research is made publicly available, helping to further the open access movement and support digital scholarship (Jones, 2019). Economic factors are complex and ever changing, there are endeavours underway to curtail commercial influence in education but they require ongoing political support which is never a certainty.

Digital scholarship can take a personal toll both psychologically and physically. Ayers (2013) argues that digital projects require academics to invest extra time in learning new technologies; however, there is a wider range of digital engagement required by scholars that needs to be considered. A UK study by the University and College Union calculated that the requirement to stay digitally engaged was contributing to academics working the equivalent of two unpaid days per week (UCU, 2016). One of the main causes of this lack of down time has been the mobile phone which has removed of boundaries between the work and home life and increased the pressures to be stay connected and engaged. With the increased accessibility that new technology has brought to content, the perceived value of the scholarly product has been diminished with consumers taking little account of the work required to create the content; therefore, scholars need to spend more time promoting and sharing their content to ensure that it is seen as valuable (Huggett, 2019; Schwarz & Knowles, 2018).  As this working environment becomes the norm, not all scholars are able to meet these expectations, people whose disability precludes them from checking their digital device regularly, those with young children and those with health issues are at risk of being disadvantaged (Huggett, 2019). Any non-flexible work expectations will result in poor outcomes for individuals with special requirements and just because technology makes it possible for work to occur outside of traditional working hours, it does not make it accessible (McNally, 2015).

The psychological risks of digital networks for academics are similar to those face by anyone who has to regularly engage with large online networks, especially open forums such as Twitter. Given the often text-driven medium of social networks, it is difficult to ensure that comments posted are not interpreted differently to how they were intended (Stewart, 2016). An additional risk is that in the hyper-partisan environment of social media your comments may be wilfully misinterpreted leading to an influx of hateful messages. If your comments are not misinterpreted at the time of their posting, then the long memory of the internet can result in them being revisited in the future when your profile may be higher and comments you have made in the past may have more impact. This was the experience of two university lecturers who were targeted with death threats following their promotions, when previous political tweets were uncovered by internet trolls (‘Threatened scholars’, 2019). The nature of digital networks means that any actual or interpreted missteps could have an audience of millions compared to an audience in the hundreds in pre-internet days (Pausé & Russell, 2016). Although any scholar is at risk of a potential backlash from their digital engagement, scholars who have tenure are able to post with less fear of repercussions; therefore, digital networking is riskier for those with less job security and this can curtail scholarly debate (Sugimoto, 2016). The digital world is starting to understand the need for safer spaces for scholars to communicate and be supported by their networks (Cook, 2019). Watrall has proposed a framework for “thoughtful praxis” where communities can be a space to help nurture scholars with time being taken to discuss topics without the fear of failure, allowing scholars to be positive about networks rather than fearful of them. (Watrall, 2019). Digital citizenship has started to increase momentum as the overarching phrase for this responsible and appropriate use of technology that considers “digital etiquette, digital health and wellness, and digital rights and responsibilities” (Alexander, Adams, & Cummins, 2016). Within digital scholarship, digital citizenship needs to be the core of personal and institutional approaches.

Fostering digital scholarship continues to require us to understand how cultural, institutional, economic and personal factors impact digital scholarship. Institutions and culture have continued to maintain similar impediments to the progress of digital scholarship in the six years since Ayers (2013) wrote Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future? There have been major changes in the cultural and economic realms where a much more complex environment has emerged. However, with that complexity has come the tools to allow increased adoption of digital scholarship. Digital citizenship has started to consider the need for a balanced digital life and the open access movement has gained support from governments allowing it to compete with commercial interests within education. The future for Digital Scholarship will be bright but major impediments mean that the sun is still yet to fully rise.



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