Book Review: The Digital Scholar – How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice

The world is changing rapidly; is higher education adapting as fast? Martin Weller explores this topic in his book The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice*. I found this book to be prophetic as I watch what is happening around me in both higher education (HE) and Extension. As Weller pointed out, and I totally agree, we (HE) can be doing more to adapt to the effect that technology is having on the education profession. 

I personally found this to be a fascinating book because it was in line with what I have been thinking regarding the impact technology has been having on HE. These technologies have included distance education, social learning, and MOOCs. With the introduction of open access resources, how scholarship is being reported is changing. I just do not believe it is being changed fast enough. HE seems to be confident in the status quo; however, as Weller pointed out there is a storm brewing. Why should others make money on reported research when the public can benefit for free? Weller explores tenure, publishing, and rewards in depth as well as how technology can and should change some practices.

When I started to read this book, I thought it was written in 2014, I was surprised to learn that it was written in 2011. I wonder how I had not found this book earlier. I believe it is important for educators and scholars to read. You may want to reconsider some of your scholarly practices. The topics covered are as valuable now as when he first wrote about them.

The book is 256 pages and covers 14 chapters. Weller’s purpose is three folder, he explored: “how the adoption of new technology is changing scholarly practice, how it could change practice and what questions does this raise for all academics?” (Weller, 2011, Chapter 1, The structure of this book section, para. 1).

How the adoption of new technology is changing scholarly practice

Weller began by comparing how the world has changed over the period of six years between the two books he had written. He reflected on how technology has caused him to change tools, networking sources, and content.  He continued by explaining how social media and social learning have affected scholarship. Technology has changed with whom we connect and how.

Individuals are learning at a voracious pace. Weller quoted John Seeley Brown to illustrate his point, “As the pace of change in the 21st century continues to increase, the world is becoming more interconnected and complex, and the knowledge economy is craving more intellectual property” (Weller, 2011, Chapter 2, para. 5). HE must adapt and continue to feed this appetite. An important question was asked, if we do not adapt and keep up to change, can we remain relevant to our learners? Weller provided data showing an interesting gap between what students expect and what is often delivered in terms of instruction.

As Weller presented his case, he explored the impact of technology on other industries: newspaper and music. The two major disruptions have been caused by the digitizing of content and social media or the ability to easily share digital content. Digitized content can be created, distributed, and stored much easier than other content. Gatekeepers are no longer needed nor wanted in the digital age. Weller clearly outlined how the disruption has occurred in the music industry. Digitized content has changed how consumers buy and listen to music, they no longer need to buy entire albums but purchase singles. He asked, will we need to publish journals when all we want is a single research article. Change is already coming. I personally conduct  digital searches for articles around a topic… I am oblivious to what journals they are published in.

How technology could change practice

After outlining disruptions to other industries and society as a whole, Weller explored how the digitizing of content and social media could affect higher education. He began by exploring the concept of scholarship and current practices. One area he discussed in depth was in regards to journals. “Journal articles can almost be seen as the battleground between new forms of scholarly activity and traditional systems” (Weller, 2011, Chapter 4, Integration section, para. 1).  The huge frustration is that authors go through a lot of work to share their findings, yet they cannot readily share their research with the public. Publishers are making huge profits from the authors, libraries, and consumers.

Weller also explored open education resources (OER) and the open access movement.

With the advent of a wide variety, and high quality, of freely available academic content online, the individual student is no longer limited by the physical resources they can locate, and the lecturer is therefore no longer regarded as the sole source of knowledge, as the learner can pick and choose elements from a variety of courses provided by any number of diverse institutions and individuals. (Weller, 2011, Chapter 4, Teaching section, para. 3)

While some HE institutions are concerned about the open access movement, they should figure out how to make it work for their benefit. Weller reported that the open access movement was not only providing rich content for informal learners, but “there is evidence that it helped recruit new students to formal courses” (Weller, 2011, Chapter 2, Open education section, para. 3). As I have experience in HE so far, there seems to be a real reluctance to share content with the world. We are afraid that giving content away will result in a loss of business. I am seeing the opposite happening, and I am not the only one. In a podcast I am listening to successful entrepreneurs regularly discuss how giving away content has helped them succeed. I personally have been asked to participate on a podcast or speak at a conference because of what I have shared online. In chapter 9, Weller outlined the differences between big OERs and little OERs. I thought this was interesting and important.

Weller further dove into research and the scholar in chapter 5. He looked at how journal articles and research drive the careers of scholars. Additionally, he explained how open access journals affect the equation in terms of promotion and reputation. In a rapidly changing world, there is tension between the time it takes to create a peer-reviewed journal article and the spontaneity of social media. There is also a difference between the readability rate of journals articles and social media. Will HE institutions recognize the impact of digital scholarship shared through social media? In chapter 6, Weller talked about interdisciplinary research, the challenges and opportunities as well as the impact that social media could play in transcending different research cultures.

Perhaps one of the most important discussions was around public engagement. With fewer research dollars available, HE institutions must do a better job sharing what they do with the public. Social media can be better leveraged to get the word out. All educators should be working out loud as they highlight the importance of their research and teaching. Weller spoke about the long tail. The long tail is how Amazon has been very successful. They make obscure content available, and this content makes up a bulk of their sales. Traditional book sellers have struggled against this model. Educators should regularly add to their own long tail. It is not difficult to add content to the long tail, I have advocated for Extension educators to work out loud as well as reuse their content such as putting presentations on Slideshare, news articles as blog posts, radio spots as podcasts, and answering questions with a blog post.

Three chapters stood out to me more than the rest, one because I have been a witness to the changes over time (conferences), and the other two because they opened my eyes a little bit more to the process (reward and tenure, and the publishing industry).

Over time, I have watched how conferences have changed from events where in person attendance was necessary to events where one can participate remotely. Weller did a great job outlining how technology has changed the event. I personally believe it has made the experience a richer one. I am able to benefit from more learning opportunities especially due to videocasting. I can attend more sessions. I am also able to tap into more digital resources because of the backchannel. However, there is no doubt that conferences have changed because of technology.

I believe the topics of rewards and tenure and the publishing industry are closely tied. Weller went in depth to explain the tenure promotion process and the place publications had on promotion. He added the importance of digital scholarship as well as its barriers. He provided ideas for making digital scholarship a possibility for institutions. As he asked, “why is a blog with a higher readership regarded as less influential than a journal article?” (Weller, 2011, Chapter 11, Conclusion section, para. 6). What I found to be especially fascinating was the publishing process. “When authors agree to publication with a journal, they are usually required to sign a copyright form, assigning the rights of that specific paper, but not all of the intellectual property therein, to the publishers” (Weller, 2011, Chapter 12, The academic publishing business section, para. 3). Authors are not reimbursed, libraries and purchasers have to pay, and publishers are the only ones making money. Weller introduced open access publishing and the impact it could play on the status quo. Naturally, there is increased push back from those who could lose the most… traditional publishers.

As I finished reading this section, I could only question why we continued to go with the status quo when it provided few benefits and cost more than an open model where more people could benefit.

What questions does this change raise for all academics

As Weller has thoroughly discussed, the world is and has changed because of technology. With the digitization of content and ease with which it can be shared, there has been disruptions across many industries and higher education is feeling the impact. Throughout the first two sections, Weller has highlighted the positive impact of technology; however, this disruption is not all positive. In this last section, Weller raises a number of questions that academics and HE institutions must address as they move forward. In chapter 13, Weller addressed quality, online identity, ownership, extremism, and even brain damage.

In the last chapter, Weller talked about the challenges of change, what is important and should be preserved, and what is no longer necessary and must be discarded for a changed procedure. He offered suggestions for embracing the change that will inevitably occur at different levels including funding level, institutional, disciplinary or program, and finally, the individual.  He encouraged HE to be part of the conversation for finding appropriate solutions to ensure rigorous scholarship but in an open environment.

Higher education is in a position where not only does it need to disrupt its own practice but it can afford to. It has sufficient resilience to do so because unlike content industries, that disruption does not completely undermine its current model. (Weller, 2011, Chapter 14, Room for disruption section, para. 7).

Over the past few years, I have been involved in and witnessed a conversation about the impact of technology on higher education. I was thrilled to find this book because it pulled together many of these discussions. I believe Weller has done a solid job of discussing the issues as well as providing guidance for moving forward. This is a discussion that more academics need to have. This book is a great resource to come up to speed on the discussion. Change is occurring and how we adjust to this change will help keep higher education relevant in a world where individuals can find answers anytime, anywhere, and from anyone.

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