The Digital Scholar – How Educators Can Be Part of the Digital Transformation

Every aspect of scholarly practice is seeing changes effected by the adoption and implementation of new technologies (Weller, 2011). It is the effects that Weller speaks of that are challenging traditions and creating rifts within the academic world. “The Digital Scholar” explores how technology is transforming higher education and not only describes the possibilities for new forms of scholarly practice, but suggests how educators can become part of that possibility.

Weller addresses every aspect within academia [including publishing and research], how each is changing, and incorporates suggestions of how-to adapt to each. Educators will be better prepared to handle change, and even use it to their advantage when they are familiar with how a given technology is influencing an established practice within academia.

Though this book is available from Amazon in various formats (e-book, softcover and hardcover), you can read it free of charge through Bloomsbury Academic [Bloomsbury publishes a select number of its research publications under open content licenses, click here for full list of titles].  In this post I review two of the most provocative chapters – ‘A Pedagogy of Abundance’ and ‘Network Weather’, the latter which refers to the unintended consequences of technology.  For a full list of the chapters click here.

Chapter Overview: ‘Network Weather’
What a great title for this chapter — ‘Network Weather’ which is a metaphor for the influence of open, digital networked approaches to scholarly practices. This chapter uses a traditional academic event, the conference, to illustrate the point. Most educators have likely experienced the technological influences on the traditional conference, with options such as virtual attendance, teleconferencing, and the sharing of content [and opinions] post-conference through various platforms, blogs, Slideshare, Flickr, etc. Then there are the unintentional consequences that happen through back channel platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. Conversations or comments happening in real-time, during the presentation/conference can generate constructive and positive discussion, however negative and damaging feedback is not uncommon. The author also delves into the implications of an amplified event, where a conference incorporates input from remote participants.

Weller presents excellent suggestions, strategies and even a case study in this chapter for educators involved in preparing for and participating in conferences, and concludes with an astute observation, that suggests such events [the conference for example] will eventually be able to seamlessly include technology so that it becomes transparent.

Chapter Overview: ‘A Pedagogy of Abundance’
The author begins this chapter with the idea of content abundance which he suggests, is one driver of change for reform in pedagogical methods. Content from scholastic experts at one time was limited to lecture halls and expensive textbooks, creating a model based upon scarcity.

“[W]hen goods become digital and available online then scarcity disappears. They are non-rivalrous so that if a copy is taken, it is still available for others. They are distributed free on a global scale (if we ignore infrastructure costs which apply to all content).” (Weller)

Another driver for pedagogical reform is our digital society; our daily life which depends upon social platforms and Internet connected devices. Educational methods must adapt accordingly.  Weller suggest five possible pedagogical methods that would be appropriate and relevant for educating learners in our digital world, all of which are based upon the principle of active learning.  I’ve listed each below, though have included linked resources with each that are my own recommendations.

1. Resource-based learning (RBL): Resource-based learning relies students’ own initiative, where learners select from a variety of resources, print, media and even human resources that they deem appropriate to meet their learning goals. Learners are given responsibility for selecting resources that appeal to their own learning preferences.

2.  Problem-based learning (PBL): This approach is unique, yet we’re seeing many instituions within higher education incorporating this method.  Students begin with a problem, it is  first step in the learning process. The problem is often ill-structured or open-ended. University of Delaware promotes a PBL program on its website, “PBL is about students connecting disciplinary knowledge to real-world problems—the motivation to solve a problem becomes the motivation to learn.” Further PBL resources: cooperative learning series, UC Irvine, and USC, Dental School.

3. Constructivism: This theory gained much popularity in the 1990s, particularly with the advent of e-learning.  The learner is central in this model, an active part of the learning process. Constructivism is grounded in Vygotsky’s theory of social development.

4. Communities of practice: Lave and Wenger’s (1991) book on situated learning and Wenger’s (1998)  influential book on communities of practice highlight the social role in learning and the importance of apprenticeship. Internships and working in the community are examples of this method in action.

5. Connectivism: This learning theory developed by Stephen Downes and  George Siemens is based upon the premise that knowledge is created through a series of connections (nodes) within a network that the learner interacts with. Information can be chaotic but the learner is able to make sense of information based upon his or her own objectives and motivations. Further resources: e-learnspace.

I highly recommend this resource for educators working within Higher Education.  At least one chapter, if not more, would be relevant to educators, whether technology devices are used or not. The author writes from the perspective not of the user of technology, but from the academic practice’s point-of-view, and how it is affected by technology. A subtle but effective approach that sheds light objectively on the changes within each scholarly area. I am optimistic that each reader will find something of interest and value.

The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Academic Practice, 2011, Martin Weller