Our digital scholarship

By Andrew Middleton, Academic Innovation
Academic Innovation here at Sheffield Hallam is a team of nine people currently. Innovation is a subjective term: for many of us our job has not just been about horizon scanning for new and emerging technologies, but about living, working and learning with them. This has provided us with an immersive way of evaluating their potential to learning and teaching.
I decided it would be interesting to ask my colleagues, at the turn of the decade, to look back five years and reflect on how emerging technologies have changed the way they learn. Some of them are formally engaged as learners, or have been recently, whilst for most ‘learning’ is less formal, relating to working practice or leisure activities. I have decided to anonymise contributions so as not to embarrass anyone.

#1 “Recent innovations and developments in technology have made it easier to record and reflect on my practice, as well as helping me in communicating my work and ideas with colleagues, at both SHU and across the sector.”

#2 “Due to developments in mobile technology and online resources, learning is now more of a 24/7 activity than it used to be. It’s also easier to communicate with your peers and tutors, and this means that learning is now far more collaborative than it once was. For the same reasons the process of learning is now more learner driven.”

#3 “I think the introduction of feeds has changed the way I learn, most noticeably with learning about other people’s lives through things like facebook. Now information that I want is brought straight to me, without me having to seek it out from a variety of sources. Five years ago it would have been a matter of soliciting that information from individuals and hoping they responded. I also have been doing a totally online formal learning course. I miss the face-to- face contact outside of the classroom with fellow students, but I’ve found that the technology still allows us to feel like a class. I’ve been able to make friendships and [find] study partners despite the distance and never having met them in person. So it’s also changed my perceptions about what type of learning experiences I might enjoy and why.”

#4 “Information is more than ever at my fingertips. Five years ago I didn’t imagine that my discussions would be punctuated by information gathering, organising and sharing regardless of location – whether at the dinner table, bus stop, in a meeting: “the internet can tell us (right now)”, or “well let’s find out (right now)”, “lets see what such and such is doing” have become mantras. My social and professional connections have been enhanced and strengthened. Self directed learning through connectivity and immediacy has become second nature through stealth rather than design.”

#5 “I’m going to suggest that the combination of twitter and Google Reader have had the most significant impact on the way I learn personally. The push elements of both keep me up to date with new blog posts, resources and conversations. There is also a sense of serendipity that those sorts of networks offer, where I come across something from outside my discipline but with relevance within.
Outside of my personal experience I would suggest that a very significant impact has been the ease of access to learning in a broader range of media (and by learning here I am including the production as well as the consumption of media). Specific to consumption, it is notable to me that things that would routinely have been text a few years ago are now offered as audio, video, animation etc, etc.”

#6 “Facebook, twitter, RSS, and push email and their almost-constant availability on mobile devices means that it is much easier for us to connect with, monitor, and contribute to the output/opinion/discussion of the things we choose to be interested in, either for work, study, or recreation. Information is now easier to access, in a more informal manner, in a wider range of locations.”

#7 “For me it’s about personalisation of the web allowing greater control of access to multiple types of online learning resources and applications. Also the uses of Web 2.0 based applications provide fantastic opportunities to become more reflective. As well as offering reflective opportunities we can share all types of resources to generate ideas and learning communities. All of this means that the learning process / experience becomes much more flexible, instant and portable.”

#8 “They may not be new, but Google and Wikipedia are definitely first port of call, and probably more so than five years ago. Webinars – I’m not convinced yet, but I’m still prepared to give them a go. They beat burning fossil fuels to get places, but aren’t very social. The blogosphere is important to check out the opinions of others. Mobility – I now have a laptop instead of a home PC.”

Ask anyone who I work with what my response to this question would be and I’m almost certain they’d get it right: digital audio of course. Yes, it’s the focus of much of my work, but it is also probably the medium, technology or environment, that I would regard as most enabling for me – but more as a producer than a listener. In academia we are used to putting things into words, but something different happens when you are committing your words to digital ‘tape’ in the podosphere for the benefits of peers and other authentic audiences, wherever they may be. My interest in educational audio is symptomatic of many of the emerging characteristics of recent years that have become important to me: asynchronicity, user-generated content, personalisation, social engagement, demanding active contexts, accessible environments, and connection-making across formal divides to worlds beyond education.
Reflecting on the responses of colleagues here it is notable that there isn’t anything too out of the ordinary. For the most part people have spoken more about the change in their habits and behaviour than of any specific gadgetry. Google Docs, Pb Wiki and Ning, for example, are tools that are regularly used across the team, yet it is the way we connect in general that is of interest to people here. Recurring ideas include ‘anywhere access’ to information, information that is pushed to you through predetermined choices from friends and systems, and the related change in the formality of engagement.
It may be that this group knows more about how to find and use such technologies than most other staff groups, but maybe not. This is something I hope to find out as I am about to undertake a piece of work around digital scholarship which will consider the extent to which digital technologies are changing the way academic knowledge is refreshed. This piece of work will be our latest strand in the university’s Digital Fluency initiative and I already feel as though technology- enhanced learning in the Digital Age is something that each of us discovers and develops for ourselves. If that is the case, what are the organisational implications of this?

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