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Two New Books About Digital Scholars

A pair of books look at digital scholarship, one from the perspective of faculty who want to contribute ot the public good, the other a view of how students use technology in their lives.

April 18, 2017
 
 

I am not as fast a reader as Josha Kim (how does he do it?) but I’ve finally finished two books that have lingered on Mount TBR* for too long – and they made such interesting companions! Both examine the role of technology in our scholarly lives and, by coincidence, focus on students and faculty at schools that are part of the City University of New York.

The first is Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good by Jessie Daniels and  Polly Thistlethwaite, both of the CUNY Graduate Center. Daniels, a professor of sociology and critical social psychology and Thistethwaite, the chief librarian at the Graduate Center, collaborated (with many others) on JustPublics@365, a project that brought together scholars, journalists, activists, and community members in order to explore Being a Scholar in the Digital Era“scholarly communication for the public good.” The project tackled social justice topics, holding public summits and trainings, creating podcasts and other media, and putting the results together in ebooks that can be downloaded freely. It was a chance to see how various constituents working within different traditions could come together to use digital tools to produce public knowledge. The book examines the various issues involved: how has scholarship changed with the advent of digital tools? What does it mean to be a scholar-activist? How can we work with communities? What kind of tools can make education and scholarship more equitably available and how can we measure its impact not by the usual citation metrics but in terms of social impact? It’s an incredibly thoughtful book that ties together a huge number of issues scholars face, all in engaging prose. 

It also makes an interesting case for books – old-fashioned books printed on paper. The project website provides a lot of intriguing information about the work a group of scholars, activists, and journalists did with digital tools over the course of a few years, and that information is still available online. It’s a rich digital record of a community’s work. But it’s rare at the end of a project like this to step back and think deeply about what was learned and what it means more generally. Using this experience as a springboard for a broader exploration of education, the value of scholarship to the public, the relationship of social research to its subjects, and the ways digital technologies can either be used to reinforce hierarchies or dismantle them . . . that’s a tall order best filled by a long-form argument where the multiple strands can be gathered up and woven together. I’m glad the Policy Press at the University of Bristol helped the authors make it happen.

The second book I just finished (a Palgrave Pivot book - shorter than many monographs, and more affordable than most of this publisher's books) is about the digital practices of a different group of scholars – undergraduate students at six CUNY colleges. Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier in Higher Education by librarians Maura Smale and Mariana Regalado summarizes years of ethnographic research among an understudied Digital Technology as and Affordance and Barrierpopulation: urban commuter and nontraditional students. As Matt Reed has to remind us from time to time, our thinking about higher education too seldom includes the experiences of the roughly half of American college students who attend community colleges. Librarians (and no doubt technology providers on college campuses) tend to follow national trends and often make decisions that reflect the conditions at dissimilar institutions. Whatever everyone is doing, we should do too. A few years ago it was 3D printers. They’re a great fit for some communities and curricula, but how many are gathering dust in libraries where they aren’t? Smale and Regalado recognized that it was much more useful to find out what their students actually need. Their book (and their project website) makes a strong case that we all should pay more attention to students’ lived experience if we want to support them in their learning.  

The study used mixed methods, including in-person and online surveys of students and faculty, interviews, photo diaries, mapping diaries, and a “day in the life” project that tracked students through a day using text messages and geolocation followed by interviews. (Full disclosure: I know the authors because my institution is one of eight that used this “day in the life” protocol in a multi-institutional study last year.) Their findings challenge the myth of the “digital native.” Yes, most of their students grew up in a world where personal computers were common, but that doesn’t give them a common identity or an innate facility with technology. The study also enriches our understanding of some of the barriers students face. They might have a desktop computer at home, but share it with siblings in a crowded apartment. They may not have broadband or wifi access to the internet at home. They probably spend 45 minutes or more on their commute, but the trains and buses are crowded so the only digital device they can use to do homework is their cell phone. The computer labs get crowded at crunch time, the wifi is too slow, and time has to be carefully budgeted to print that assignment that’s due in fifteen minutes.

We have a tendency to think students are congenitally good at technology and putting things online (including entire courses) gives them the freedom to work whenever they want. In reality, many students have a steep learning curve to overcome when using academic technology and don’t have unlimited internet access or time in their lives to use technology in their learning. Though this is an extensive study that involved 743 students and 140 faculty, what sticks with me are the small personal stories: the young woman who escaped a noisy family apartment to sit on the floor in the hallway to study, the parents who enjoyed studying while the kids did their homework because it was mutually supportive, the ingenious workarounds students concocted to review course materials or write papers on their cell phones during long commutes. My thumbs get tired just thinking about it. Anecdotes like these aren’t enough to make decisions for a campus, but this extensive study challenges assumptions we might have about our students’ relationship to technology. We need to know more so we can plan around their needs, find ways to help them use the technology we provide or expect them to use, and above all replace our assumptions with a more nuanced understanding of the role technology plays in the actual lives of our students at our unique institutions.

All in all, this proved a successful Mount TBR expedition. I came down from the mountain knowing more about how we use technology today both as faculty and as students. Now to catch up on all those other books . . .

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