Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Digital University (part 2)

This is a reconstruction of the second post I made in February as it seems to have been lost: Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe (2007) have argued that digital technologies constitute a new context for learning and teaching for several interrelated reasons:

  • The technologies themselves and their availability in advanced industrial countries;

  • the social and cultural changes related to these new technologies (e.g. Castells 1996);

  • the consequent epistemological changes affecting what counts as useful knowledge and how knowledge is produced, circulated and consumed;

  • the nature of work and the growth in demand for qualifications from universities;

  • the way the changing nature of work affects universities in relation to faculty and their work and the relationship between universities and their students;

  • the changing nature of the students entering university.

The term Digital University is one that although poorly defined can be taken to apply to all university functions as they are revised to make use of digital technologies and accommodate their impacts. This suggests a two way process in which universities, and various bodies within and beyond them, actively seek to develop new modes of working that make use of the new possibilities that digital technologies make available and at the same time accommodate to changes deriving from the deployment of digital technologies, which are outside of their control, but which have direct consequences for university operations. The main areas of change involving digital technologies include all main university functions:

  • Teaching

  • Learning

  • Research

  • Library services

  • Management, administration and working practices

The term also offers an alternative to other attempts to grasp the nature of change using terms such as the Virtual University (Ryan et al) or the Global Virtual University (Tiffin and Rajasingham 2003) and it avoids the presumption that digital technologies are somehow less real than other forms of mediated contact. Finally the idea of the digital can provide a kind of stability in a period of rapid change. The digital, as a general technological form, has affordances that are more stable than the specific technologies developed using digital technologies. Boyd argues that four properties arise out of the digital nature (bits) of new technologies in this context:

  • Persistence: Online expressions are automatically recorded and archived.

  • Replicability: Content made out of bits can be duplicated.

  • Scalability: The potential visibility of content in networked publics is great

  • Searchability: Content in networked publics can be accessed through searching.

It is of course possible to generate further affordances of the digital, such as manipulability, the capacity to edit, mash and reform digital artefacts. The interesting feature of the use of the idea of affordance by boyd is the way she directs attention to relatively stable features of digital technologies and elaborates how these features shape peoples participation in a relatively new Web service and the way this structures networked publics. I have separately tried to capture the changes connected to digital technologies in relation to education in the following list:

  • Time shifts – Computer networks used in education affect the usual time patterns of education. Many courses delivered across networks are asynchronous.

  • Place – The introduction of mobile and ubiquitous computing devices have begun to make the idea of education occurring at anytime, anyplace, and anywhere seem more feasible.

  • Digital preservation – The outputs of synchronous and asynchronous activity are easily preserved in transcripts, logs and a variety of other forms including the archiving of web casts and audio interviews/podcasts.

  • Public/Private boundaries – The preservation of what would otherwise be ephemeral materials alters the boundaries between what is public and what is private. Tutors can now view and preserve the details of student’s interactions during group activities, making these available as tools for assessment.

  • Forms of literacy – The still largely text based world of networked learning has generated new forms of writing that are neither simple text replications of informal conversation nor are they formal written texts. The integration of images and audio into digital environments has suggested new forms of multimedia literacy.

  • Content – The boundary between content and process is shifting. Blogs and wikis can provide elements of content and cut and paste re-use is common practice. The idea that there is a clear distinction between activity/process and artefact/ content is becoming strained. (Jones and Dirckinck-Holmfeld 2009 p10)

Once again the feature I would draw your attention to is the relative stability of this list in relation to the constant change in technologies, tools, digital devices and networked services. Many of these features were applicable in the early years of educational use of the Internet (see for example Harasim et al. 1995). Acknowledging the contextual nature of users’ interpretations of technology does not mean succumbing to the idea that technology once fixed in place has no role in shaping the nature of use. Hutchby argues that:

“The concept of affordance has been applied to technology in the sense that: technologies possess different affordances, and these affordances constrain the ways that they can possibly be ‘written’ or ‘read’ (Hutchby, 2001, p. 447).

It is this sense of constraint that I wish to convey here. Technologies are indeed read by their users, but the reading is constrained by the features of the technology and the technological infrastructures that have been put in place.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Can I also add that some recent thinking in Science & Technology Studies also seems to reflect the idea that there is not a 'given' social context busily shaping the technology, but a mutual shaping process, such that it may be possible to learn something about the sociality of the user group from the events that they contruct as 'technological' (see Adrian Mackenzie 2005 'Problematising the Technological: The Object as Event?', Social
    Epistemology, 19: 4, 381 — 399)

    Another happorth: Borgman (talked a lot about her a while back: http://literacyinthedigitaluniversity.blogspot.com/2010/05/borgman-on-digital-scholarship-why-it.html) makes the point that digitisation does not confer additional preservability on data but the opposite. Digital formats are quickly superceded - lots of data from the early days of computing 50 years ago is lost for ever whilst print still sits securely and readably in vaults 00s of years later.