Book Review: The Digital Scholar by Martin Weller

I’m sure that regular readers and contributors to Martin’s blog will be delighted with this book. Although he takes care to be objective throughout the text, its subtitle should read something like ‘wake up and smell the coffee’. The real challenge will be getting the book onto the radar (and from there into the practice) of university staff who are still operating along more traditional lines despite massive environmental change.

Martin begins by reflecting on how his research process has changed since writing his last book just 6 years ago, which very much concurs with my own experience:

· Increased quantity of digital content available

· Advice and input from members of his social network

· Wider range of information sources drawn upon (blogs, video, tweets etc)

· Digital files of whatever type are easily sharable and accessible to any interested party, opening up research to new audiences and contributors.

Some key points for me from the book are:

The growth of ‘good enough’ technology such as skype or netbooks (as examples of the classic Christensen model of disruptive innovation) which despite lacking in refinement meet a mass market need for next to no cost – and consequently can displace more ‘professional’ products and services almost by stealth.

How to navigate the ongoing tensions between the established order and the new possibilities offered by developments in technology? For example, while learning from online resources and a global network of peers and experts offers a compelling alternative to a traditional lecture, the role of universities in providing well recognised social and accreditation functions is more difficult to replicate.

Interesting lessons from the experiences of other industries such as music and newspapers which have struggled to deal with developments in technology. Martin considers how traditional notions of scholarship (Boyer’s categories of discovery, integration, application and teaching) are challenged by the digital age and these aspects provide a framework for the chapter structure.

Worryingly, new researchers are not maximising the potential of new technologies in research. This can be explained by university reward systems which are driven by a conservative and narrow viewpoint of what constitutes ‘quality’. The consequence is that “new entrants are encouraged to be conservative while the reinterpretation of practice and exploration is left to established practitioners” – 180 degrees away from most industries where ‘fresh sets of eyes’ are encouraged to re-energise an organisation by challenging established practices.

In today’s world where information is abundant and shareable and global networks of expertise and support are accessible, the limiting factors for the individual learner are time and attention. Developing effective strategies for dealing with managing this are critical. (For example, I have switched off Tweetdeck in order to finish writing this post!)

Trying to protect traditional models of academic practice are unlikely to succeed (see newspapers and music) – Martin notes how students or conference participants will circumvent attempts at control, for example by googling for free alternatives to a set textbook, or watching more dynamic video presentations of a particular lecture topic online, or criticising a module on Facebook in a far more direct way than they would do on an official course feedback form.

I very much enjoyed the book, and as a ‘call to action’ I hope its messages get the attention that they deserve J

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