Monday, 24 May 2010

The Red Queen and the Blue University

An 'information alert' that has just come round our university from the strategy department likens UK Higher Education to the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, running as hard as she can in order to stay in the same place.

It argues that in the new socio-economic climate, characterised by 'seismic shifts', 'inexorable forces', 'irreversible changes', 'fundamental transformation', etc., universities need to ditch their outmoded (publicly funded) business model and adopt demand-led models that promise ' income earned through value delivered', like Amazon (the online bookshop not the jungle), 'the learning hotel', 'the umbrella' etc.

The Alert is a a digest of a report from PA consulting group on the 'new economics of higher education' which itself recycles ideas that have been doing the rounds in technology/business thinking about higher education for a few years now, for example Seely Brown and Adler's 'Minds on Fire, Anderson's 'The Long Tail' (and, not referenced but there in spirit, Katz's 'The Tower and the Cloud').

I'd like to do a critical discourse analysis job on the language of some of these alerts and reports on the future of higher education, and indeed on some of the scholarship on which they are based, but this is more properly the subject of an essay than a blog post. Suffice it to say here that there is another story also to be told about the purpose and sustainability of universities. The UK higher education budget for 2010 -- 2011 includes £5 billion for teaching, and £1.6 billion for research, paid for out of the income tax of 30 million people and intended to benefit up to 40% of their children over the next 12 months. This system, unfair as it undoubtedly is, outmoded as it may be, nevertheless reflects an embedded tradition of thinking about public responsibility and mass social benefits that can't simply be overturned by the mantras of demand-led economics.

Craig Calhoun explores some of the complexities of public and private benefit in university education in works such as 'The University and the Public Good' and his keynote talk ' Free Enquiry and Public Mission in the Research University' at the Open University Centre for Identities Citizenship and Governance last April. He argues that 'public' does not simply mean an aggregate of private interests, but has a larger reality critical to democracy.

Cowan et al 'Running the Marathon' analyse innovation as one of the public and private goods over which universities and other sectors compete. They show that the real contribution of the public university to the advance of knowledge is an educational one, to provide people who are capable of being innovative, not simply innovative ideas per se.

I put these sources forward as examples of thinking about higher education that engage with its public role from a different ideological position to that of the Red Queen authors. The different positions do not necessarily refute each other, but whereas Calhoun, Cowan, and other critical educational theorists recognise the role of ideology in the construction of their ideas, neo-liberal business theory seems to believe it is simply talking common sense. 'Escaping the Red Queen effect' employs Carrollian nonsense rhetorically to emphasise this, but that does not make its prescriptions (learning hotels and umbrella universities) necessarily any more sensible in the long run than the HEFCE grant settlement.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Dragon talk

Dragon is the speech recognition software I'm using to try and combat my body's keyboard-phobia.

'Dragon talk' is the title of a collection of poems by Fleur Adcock the New Zealand writer. A review by Julian Stannard in the Guardian of May 15 includes a gem that reflects the complex relationship that Dragon users have with their assistive pal:

I wait for you to lash your tail
each time I swear at you.
But no: you listen meekly,
and print "f***ing moron".

(Apologies to Fleur Adcock for not having the courage to reproduce what she wrote exactly)

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Borgman on digital scholarship - why it is a literacy matter

Borgman, C. (2007) Scholarship in the digital age. Information, infrastructure and the Internet. Cambs: London:MIT press

(warning: this is a rather long post)

Borgman is one of two references which are the basis of current discussions about digital scholarship at the open University. The other is the article by Boyer written about 20 years ago (see Nick Pearce's blog). Borgman locates her work within the context of the mass digitisation of print and the computerisation of data which is a feature of the current literary, academic, and scientific research environment. She sets out to create a 'social framework for data' incorporating notions of open access and research data as 'public goods'. Whilst her idea of scholarship is shaped mainly by its relation to research (Boyer's 'discovery' function) the focus on data and on scholarly communication has implications for integration, application, and dissemination/teaching as well.

Borgman's most valuable contribution to our discussion of digital scholarship is probably in her recognition of the phenomenon as a sociotechnical system. (And thus researchable through existing theoretical and methodological frameworks such as: social shaping, actor network theory, the social construction of technology, work practices etc). A sociotechnical perspective connects scholarly activity with institutional, political, social, technical and economic infrastructures. For example: she refers to traditional scholarly communication as a 'gift exchange culture' wherein value of a non-economic kind is exchanged between researchers, authors, reviewers, readers, universities, funding agencies etc. enabled by technical communication systems that are free and easy-to-use. These relationships confer a kind of stability on the process of scholarly communication. She contrasts this, with scholarly publication, which she claims is highly unstable ('discontinuous' is the preferred term) as interests conflict amongst researchers, librarians, publishers and the public and corporate worlds, over ownership of data, technical communication systems, and what counts as documented knowledge.

Borgman summarises the functions of scholarly communication as: the legitimisation, dissemination, preservation and curation of knowledge. At the foundation of this set of functions she puts data. The basis of her book is a description and discussion of different ways in which digital technologies are impacting on the role of data in the pursuit of these functions. The focus on data distinguishes Borgman's approach to scholarship from that of Boyer, whose perspective is that of the individual academic and their role in the University as institution. One way to unite the Borgman and Boyer perspectives might be to accept the centrality of data in the business of scholarship and to explore its role in scholarly activity through each of Boyer's phases: discovery, integration, application, dissemination/teaching. (I suspect that this would show that Boyer's phases are neither linear nor discrete, as data is likely to have a similar form in the discovery and dissemination stages -- although it's ownership and control may be different -- whereas its role in integration is probably less marked. It's role in application and teaching could be a matter of some very interesting speculation.

One important aspect of the informal sociotechnical systems of scholarly communication that she highlights, is the research conference. In a section on different types of conferences in different disciplines she draws attention to the operation of good scholarly citizenship, including the reviewing of contributions, and the increasing requirement for contributors to attend the conference to deliver their own papers. (The notion of scholars as a community of citizens is an ancient one, but it continues to inform the discussion of scholarship at every level). Virtual online conferences are not part of the discussion, though it is clear that in some fields at least (learning technology being one of course) these are increasingly being seen as alternatives to face-to-face conferences. Whether the social and disciplinary function of an online conference is identical to that of its face-to-face counterpart, or different in some technologically determined way, is a question for future research. The same research might enquire whether digital scholarship still implies scholarly community, or whether it now defines processes that cross different communities. Borgman refers to the concept of 'invisible colleges', referring to the informal affiliation of scholars from many institutions, often in distinct geographic locations (p. 57), which would seem quite close to what we understand as an online community. Critics of the concept, however, question how far an invisible (or virtual) college can be said to be a structural entity, as opposed to just a description of the processes of communication of its members.

Another important concept she introduces is that of the 'value chain' of scholarship, which are those activities which add value to data by enhancing the flow of information. Publication for example. She gives the example of the way social science and humanities researchers mine the documentation that results from interpersonal conversations and other informal interactions taking place online (p. 125) as an example of an infrastructure that maintains links between data, publications, and interim communication. The prospect of developments in the mining process enabled by new technologies she constructs as 'possibilities for new forms of scholarship'.

(Paradoxically, however, she cites references that suggest that representations of conventional academic publication online are not currently conducive to academic reading. Scholarly readers apparently disaggregate the contents of articles, rather than read them linearly or through associational links. Borgman claims that this is the reason there has been little take-up of hypertextual tools by scholars to date).

Overall she argues that while scholars continue to be rewarded for publication rather than the documentation and management of data, the emergence of a new infrastructure for data is unlikely to occur. What is needed she argues is tools to simplify the capture and sharing of data and policies to encourage scholars to work with them. Her definition of scholarship remains focused on the (mainly natural scientific) researcher, but she considers data generally in terms of relationships within the scholarly communication system, including in the humanities and social sciences, which clearly involves others who may not consider themselves to be researchers directly. However, she believes that the gift exchange model is breaking down, and looks to open access as a replacement model. By open access she does not mean to exclude publishers, who she thinks are still necessary for both the validation of research and the reward of researchers. But she does think that authors, publishers and libraries 'need a new equilibrium'. She looks forward to a situation where 'open repository' is a fundamental component of the public research infrastructure. Also to commons-based approaches for scholarly and creative content, such as are currently being backed by bodies such as UNESCO and the OECD (p.242).

Other changes she envisages, associated with digital objects, include a shift from 'authorship' to 'statements of responsibility', which may involve agents who take responsibility for content without necessarily being credited with the creation of it. Borgman is convinced that digital content will become the primary form for scholarly discourse and that this will produce the need for new trust mechanisms. Trust which has previously been invested in fixity, knowing that a document has not been changed, will in future be sought from other sources, who may be responsible for selection (library, archive, publisher, blogger), or recommendation, as well as authorship.

Whilst some of my colleagues have found this book to be a bit short on discussion in the areas of scholarship that they find most interesting, for example the scholarship of teaching and learning, I thought it was very insightful, well researched, and a good example of scholarship in its own right. It has certainly set me to thinking about the kinds of orientation to knowledge that are implied by our use of the term scholarship. This, as I never get tired of saying, is very centrally a matter of digital literacy, as it combines issues of the modality of representation with those of its associated social capital. Whatever scholarship is now, and whatever it set to be, we can be sure that it will involve communication practices that are variably valued by the communities and institutions in which it takes place. As other, non-academic, communities and institutions encroach on the University, the traditional domain of the scholar, in its business of teaching and research, the literacy practices of scholarship are certain to change. And with them the rewards and status accorded to those who call themselves scholars.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Assistive technology 2: writing with speech

I'm surprised by how accurate this software (Dragon) is with text. As long as I keep talking reasonably smoothly the program renders what I say reasonably correctly. If I hesitate, or change my mind in mid-utterance, things do start to go wrong a bit.

I'm doubly surprised, given that when I was training it on the texts provided the one I selected was by Dave Barry, who writes very funny articles for a Florida newspaper. Whilst I was supposed to be training program to recognise my voice I was in fact diddling and spluttering with laughter most of the time (aha caught it out with 'giggling' -- so I have just had to train it to recognise me saying ' giggling ', this is probably something to do with my bad pronunciation of the letters gl). Nevertheless, it has still managed to recognise and write down my words more or less as I intend.

I have noticed a tendency for it to leave out odd words like 'the' and 'fall' (that should have been 'for' -- my speech defect again). Maybe these unstressed words get treated as passing noise.

Most of the problems I've had have been navigational, moving the cursor around the text or between windows on my desktop. Theoretically, I can do everything from opening an application, scrolling or moving around in it, writing or searching in it, editing entering deleting, and saving and closing, without having to touch the keyboard with my hands. In practice it's quicker to resort to the keyboard from time to time. The net saving in stress on my neck and shoulders is considerable.

Perhaps most interesting will be the impact this new mode of authoring has on my writer's voice (cleverly it inserted 's without me asking it to, although now I have just spent several minutes trying to get it to write the word apostrophe rather than just do '). I anticipate a new fluency, but with it may well come a little less rigour, both because speaking is inherently less monitored and because the effort of editing with voice commands inclines me to do it less.

Overall my biggest bone of contention is with the printed instruction manual which is so badly glued that all the pages have now fallen out of the spine and I have to continually pick them up off the floor and reassemble them.
Otherwise the dragon is turning out to be an asset.