Yesterday I gave a presentation for George and Stephen's open course PLENK. You can see the recording of the session here. The slidedeck is below:
I have been writing a chapter on research and how researchers are (or rather aren't) using new technologies for my digital scholarship book. Several good surveys and reviews have been published recently looking at this, and the overall picture is a rather depressing one (see some references in my Mendeley list). While there are islands of innovation, generally researchers are making little use of new technologies and are very cautious and conservative in their adoption.
I talked about why this might be so and suggested the following reasons:
- The stranglehold of publishing – tenure and reward are still linked to publishing in academic journals, so spending time on other forms of communication is not directly encouraged. This is reinforced through research quality assessment exercises which are closely allied to publishing, such as the REF.
- Wasting new blood – related to the above, in other sectors new recruits are seen as the people who bring in new ideas. Yet in education because tenure is linked so closely to traditional outputs, new researchers are positively discouraged from spending time on other endeavours. So the very people who might engage in transforming practice are discouraged from doing so. This leaves it to tenured academics to engage in innovation, but these have mostly been successful through more traditional means so their history tells them to carry on this way. The pool of potential adopters then is decreased by the research context we have in place. I suggested this was quite a harmful environment to create.
- Antithetical to research ethos – I also put forward the suggestion that in science in particular, research is about predicting outcomes, and much of web 2.0 (or whatever you want to call it) is about unpredictability – you don't know what will happen with your outputs, or through a network.
- Research is the core practice – despite how much academics might say they value teaching, or public engagement, it is still research that is most highly valued. This means it is the area people are least willing to risk their reputation in and want to control most tightly.
I then suggested some themes that I thought were emerging, but that is for another post.
Of course one might argue it doesn't matter. Researchers will adopt new technologies if they are effective, and there is an underlying assumption in my talk that adoption is a good thing, which isn't necessarily true. This may well be the case, but there are three responses to this which at least bear consideration:
- The impact of the negative context – if research adoption of new technologies (and associated practices eg open publishing) is being impaired by the financial/reward structure we have in place, then we need to address whether that structure is doing research a disservice in the long term
- Powerful tools – I know through personal experience that even when people have been dismissive, or cautious of a particular tool, when it is demonstrated in the right context, or they appreciate its possibilities, then they will find uses for it in their academic work that I had never anticipated. This isn't true for everyone or for all uses, but it is worth chipping away at misconceptions and demonstrating potential.
- The role of the researcher – as higher education seeks to demonstrate its value to society, it strikes me that it is potentially dangerous not to be leading on the use and development of new tools, and particularly on what they mean for knowledge construction and sharing, rather than leaving it to others.