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Digital Research, Not Teaching

April 8, 2013

Professors are growing more comfortable using technology to discover and use scholarly sources, but the trend has yet to fundamentally alter how they disseminate research and teach courses, a new survey shows.

The survey, conducted by the consulting and research nonprofit Ithaka S+R, is the latest in a series that has tracked how faculty members incorporate technology into their research, teaching and communication for more than a decade. The trendlines drawn from the first survey cycle suggest rapid technological progress has resulted in “dramatic changes in the landscape,” said Roger C. Schonfeld, a program director at Ithaka S+R.

Perhaps most indicative of this is how technology has changed how faculty members approach research. While about half of the surveyed professors turn to research databases like JSTOR and LexisNexis to investigate topics of interest, almost 40 percent of professors start their journey at general search engines like Google and Bing. In 2003, that number was 20 percent.

Schonfeld said the rising popularity of these search engines could be related to the wealth of free scholarly material available online. Probing respondents about where they turn if their library is missing a physical or digital source, the survey found close to 90 percent of faculty members turn to the Internet to search for a free copy, edging out the roughly 80 percent who would request an inter-library loan. (Faculty members were invited on this question to list all approaches, not just one, that they would use.)

“We don’t have trendlines, but think about the growth that has taken place in the last 10 or 15 years,” Schonfeld said. “There’s been widespread change in perceptions about the way that discovery takes place by scholars.”

Yet the growth of search engines for research purposes does not appear to have come at the cost of library use. Although it is too early to conclude that libraries have been successfully completed a 21st-century reinvention, Schonfeld said it is worth noting that almost three-quarters of faculty members think of their libraries as a gateway to research -- a slight uptick from three in five in 2009.

“One hypothesis here is that libraries have begun investing significant efforts in the next generation of discovery services and tools,” Schonfeld said, adding that such an investment may explain why the shares of professors who see their libraries as archives or buyers of resources have fallen. Both categories have shrunk by about 10 percent in three years and now sit at 80 and 62 percent, respectively.

That decline could be related to a shift in how faculty members discover scholarly sources. More than half of survey respondents in the sciences and social sciences now say they would be “completely comfortable” if the journals they regularly read ceased publishing physical copies altogether. At the same time, a dwindling number of respondents say libraries should maintain physical copies of journal collections regardless of the availability of electronic copies. Less than one-third of professors in the sciences and social sciences answered in the affirmative, a number that has almost been halved in a decade.

The opposition to an all-digital approach is strongest among instructors in the humanities, where two in five respondents say they support a move away from print. Still, that number that has almost doubled since the previous survey in 2009. Schonfeld said specific disciplines like art history may exaggerate the skepticism, as the subject matter translates poorly to digital formats.

The movement toward digital formats extends mostly to how instructors use scholarly sources, however. Peer-reviewed journals, academic conferences and scholarly monographs remain the most popular methods of disseminating research, and instructors most often assign textbook readings and scholarly articles to their undergraduate students. The digital teaching methods that have taken root in undergraduate courses include showing videos in class and inviting students to participate on online discussion boards, the survey shows.

A similar survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group in 2012 showed more than two-thirds of professors were excited about “flipping the classroom” -- the practice of letting students get through lectures on their own time and leaving classroom time for other activities. But in the Ithaka S+R survey, less than 10 percent of respondents said they regularly use this method.

Schonfeld said that while the responses suggest professors are experimenting with a variety of new technologies, they may not have the structural support to adopt them.

“Although many technical barriers to using technology in the classroom have been lowered, there may still exist substantial policy, training, or interest constraints that continue to limit this kind of activity,” the report reads.

More than four in five respondents say they rely on their own ideas to introduce new teaching methods, while less than a third receive help from university IT offices or media support departments.

“It was very striking, the high share of faculty members who depend on their own ideas for thinking about new opportunities to use technology in their teaching,” Schonfeld said. He pointed out that Ithaka S+R does not have trend data on the topic, and that future surveys could begin to answer which of the emerging technologies currently being experimented with will become broadly implemented in the future.

 

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