Can Technology ‘Democratize’ Academia?

(This is a brief write-up of a presentation I gave at the Digital Humanities Colloquium a couple of months ago.)

It is beyond doubt that new technologies are radically transforming the practices associated with studying and teaching the humanities.  The debate surrounding this metamorphosis tends to divide people into two camps.  On one side are the technologists and managers who see the incredible potential for digitisation to make new forms of teaching and research possible, while traditionalists with a background in the humanities (who typically cut their teeth on different technologies) are often sceptical about new technologies and resistant to their creeping encroachment into their beloved subject area.  What I would like to do in what follows is frame the debate in a way that shows the importance of engaging with digital humanities.

My own academic career has taken place within an increasingly digital world.  When I went to study philosophy at The University of Kent at Canterbury in 1997 our technological experience and expectations were rather different to that of today’s undergraduates.  The internet was in its infancy.  It was a great novelty to most of the us to be afforded an email account for the first time, and very few people had mobile phones or home internet access.  Of course, at the time, attending a university was the only way to acquire certain forms of knowledge and information, most of which was still in the form of physical books.  Accessing them has traditionally involved joining an academic institution.

Academia means different things to different people, but the basic idea is that scholars come together to work and build a community devoted to learning and teaching.  Though the reality might not live up to it, as a statement of conviction Raphael’s Neo-Platonic account of Plato’s Academy (1510) – which portrays a range of master thinkers (mathematicians, artists, astronomers and philosophers) in fraternity and debate – is perhaps one of the most familiar depictions of life in the academe.[1]

School of Athens by Rahael

'School of Athens' by Rahael

The painting depicts both the birthplace of the Western intellectual tradition and the rediscovery of intellectualism during the high Renaissance.  Although the piece emphasizes the free exchange of ideas, the institution it depicts was undoubtedly open to only very few:  only seventy-five names are associated with the Academy during its first forty years (Ostwald & Lynch, 1994: 611-612).  Although no fees were charged for learning in Plato’s school, in no way was it a public institution: affiliations were personal and community acceptance the only precondition for taking part (Barnes, 2000: 131).  Academic communities began as autonomous institutions, grew only organically and transmitted and discovered knowledge through relationships which were both personal and pedagogical.

Modern universities are, of course, different to Plato’s olive grove in many ways.  But the same fundamental activities continue to define what academics do.  Academic still research, discuss, reflect, and pass on their knowledge.  As Pearce et al. (2010) note, Boyer’s (1990:16) four-dimensional model of scholarship as discovery, integration, application and teaching, for example, is flexible enough to apply equally well to both modern and classical instances of academia.[2]

Over time, academia has undoubtedly become more open and more accessible to a wider range of people rather than the clique of slave-owning white men than are venerated in Raphael’s fresco.  It would be remiss of me to try to explain two thousand years of academia in a short piece like this.   But I’d like to offer the provocation that the history of the academe is the history of expert knowledge becoming more ‘democratic’ (where democratic is taken in a general sense of open, accessible or equal) through relationships of technological mediation.  A series of communication technologies – a brief list would include the printing press, the postal service, telegrams, newspapers, telephones, computers and mobile devices – have made information more available than ever before.  With the advent of the internet, communities of inquiry and knowledge exchange have become decreasingly dependent on institutional frameworks or ‘closed’ academic communities.  Scholars need institutions less now for access to information than for the possibility of employment.

The development of communication technologies has been closely related to the development both of academia and the modern democratic public sphere (Habermas, 1989). That said, it would be facile to suggest that this relationship is a straightforward one.  We’re accustomed to thinking of drivers that enable or promote democracy as good things, and they generally are.  But there can be good reasons to impose limits on democratic forms of knowledge (Gosseries, 2010).  Indeed, technology is just as likely to be a barrier to democracy (Kitcher, 2011).  As new technologies build on what has come before and information literacy increases, the democratizing force of technology makes acquiring information and skills which were only available through ‘closed’ channels available to ever-increasing numbers of people.  Digital technologies are now commonly used in educational contexts for many core scholarly activities, including research (data collection; blogs; archiving; analytics), dissemination (tools for authoring; publishing; curation), networking (social networking; microblogging; forums) and teaching (email; open educational resources; virtual learning environments; blended learning).

There are a number of challenges facing academic institutions wherever these technologies are applied.  How do we ensure that the full potential of these technologies is realised in scholarship and pedagogy?  How do we check the quality of research in a world where anyone can publish anything at any time?  Who decides who has access to digital archives, artefacts and tools?  How do we ensure that scholars have the right kind of information and acquire the right literacies?  How can non-traditional forms of research be recognised or evaluated, and what kind of cultural changes are needed among academics to support this?  Could tenure ever be awarded for digital dissemination?  Moreover, how do we preserve what is of value in traditional forms of scholarship?

There is, to say the least, a delicate balancing act in progress.  Some of these questions might be thought less pressing in science, where the use of digital technologies is more commonplace (and indeed often essential).  C.P. Snow famously advanced the thesis that the technical language of science and the discourse of literary intellectuals have become increasingly estranged from one other.  While there is a suggestion that digital technology can now be seen to be re-uniting the two cultures through new forms of interdisciplinary analysis (Conole et al. 2010), such approaches seem predicated on reducing research in the arts to something that can be uncontroversially quantified.   The algorithmic patterns underlying a text or painting might well be a phenomenon worthy of study, but it is not at all clear that it should supplant traditional study.  Simply put, new digital research methods in the humanities run the risk of downplaying the interpretative nature of the humanities, which is rarely (if ever) germane to quantification or automation.  Access had been massively improved, but the nature of our experience of these works seems to have been altered.  Our experiences of literary, historical and artistic works are increasingly mediated by digital devices.  It’s of paramount importance that subject experts contribute to the evaluation of these technologies.

For the skills of interpretation and critique to retain their vibrancy, academics working in the humanities need to ensure that they appropriate the best digital tools and use them in ways which do not compromise their core values.  We need to ensure that traditional academic literacies are not neglected in the drive to ensure that information literacy skills among faculty and students are adequate (Goodfellow, 2011).  Tools for networking, collaboration and new ways of exploring ideas will be ever more important in a digital future.  But we should not lose sight of the reasons for studying the humanities.  The humanities remain essential to providing individuals with the knowledge and critical faculties necessary to be good citizens in a democratic society.  ‘Academic’ interests have never been pursued just for their own sake, but ever for the sake of developing virtue and living a (or the) good life.

On a practical level, it’s important to accept that scholarly practices are changing, to refine our understanding of changing practices, and recognise a wider range of academic activities as valid.  Some of the research I am involved with at the moment uses interviews and surveys to look at how digital resources are being used to link people, institutions and projects at The Open University: to understand the relationship between Twitter and other digital resources; to analyse ways in which metadata supports academic research; and reflect on what all this means for academic identity.  Reviewing individual or group use of online services through metric analysis is helping us to establish a more meaningful picture of digital scholarship, and is providing data for visualisations that could be a helpful tool for reflection.  But it’s all really a first step towards understanding the complex proliferation of digital technologies into all aspects of academia.  You can find out more about the research at the Digital Scholarship homepage, http://disco.open.ac.uk/.


[1] As is well known, Plato himself was resolutely elitist and a consistent critic of democracy (Plato, 2004: 557a-564a).

[2] Weller(2011) proposes ‘engagement’, ‘experimentation’, ‘reflection’ and ‘sharing’ as the respective functions of the digital scholar (p.276 ms).

References

Barnes, J. (2000). Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered: The Priorities of the Professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass / The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Conole, G., Scanlon, E., Mundin, P., & Farrow, R. (2010). Interdisciplinary Research: Findings from the TEL Research Programme. London: Economics and Social Research Council / Institute of Education.

Copping, J. (2011). A level students shun humanities at university. The Telegraph. Retrieved 14th August, 2011, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8699717/A-level-students-shun-humanities-at-university.html

Goodfellow, R. (2011). Literacy, literacies and the digital in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(131-144).

Gosseries, A. (2010). Publicity. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 14th August, 2011, from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/publicity/

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: Polity.

Kitcher, P. (2011). Public Knowledge and Its Discontents. Theory and Research in Education, 9(2), 103-124.

Ostwald, M., & Lynch, J. P. (1994). The growth of schools and the advance of knowledge. In D. M. Lewis & J. Boardman (Eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History (Vol. 6, pp. 592-692). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pearce, N., Weller, M., Scanlon, E., & Kinsley, S. (2010). Digital Scholarship Considered: How New Technologies Could Transform Academic Work. in education. Retrieved 14th August, 2011, from http://ineducation.ca/article/digital-scholarship-considered-how-new-technologies-could-transform-academic-work

Plato (2004). Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Raphael (Artist). (1510). Scuola di Atene [Fresco]. Stanze di Raffaello, Apostolic Palace, The Vatican.

Snow, C. P. (1993 ). The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tlili, A., & Dawson, E. (2010). Mediating Science and Society in the EU and UK: From Information-Transmission to Deliberative Democracy? Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 48(4), 429-461.

Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice. Bloomsbury Academic.

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