Dr Inger Mewburn
What is a digital academic?
Before Christmas I spent couple of days in Canberra with Professor Deborah Lupton and a group of well-known bloggers and academics discussing the idea of the ‘Digital Academic’. While we came to no definitive conclusions, we agreed that ‘Digital’ has become a kind of short-hand to describe someone who uses computers to enhance and extend their research and teaching. Digital spaces are radically open environments where you can use a range of tools to create and share the fruits of your academic labour – be they text, presentations, videos, podcasts – with an online audience.
This kind of sharing practice has been around in various forms since the early 1990s.It’s all part of a shift, over the last twenty years or so, which has seen digital tools creep into most aspects our teaching and research practice. Since the mid naughties, and particularly since the invention of both smart phones and social media, the adoption of new technology has accelerated. Now academics interested in working in radically open ways can use digital tools to connect with an audience, who might be in a position to give them feedback and even collaborate with them on the production of academic content I have been releasing my own content on the web since about 2009, but I’ve noticed an increasing interest in this way of working since word started to spread about the affect having an audience online can have on conventional academic publishing metrics and, down the line, competitiveness in the job market.
We talked for an hour about our various practices and only scratched the surface of the topic. Here’s some of the things our panellists had to say.
I asked Andy Tattersall, who has special interest in information overload, how this phenomenon might affect our lives. I know that many people worry that being on social media can make the problem of information overload worse? Andy pointed out that all of us have a limited energy budget for paying attention to information and pointed the finger at email as being one of the worst culprits for information overload in academic life. Some years ago I wrote a blog post called ‘top five ways to avoid death by email’ so I knew exactly what he meant. The continuous stream of email, which is hard to ignore in some cases, can lead to levels of stress and distraction that are not helpful for tasks like reading and writing that require high degrees of concentration. He suggested using services like ‘unroll me’, which help to reduce the email clutter and let you concentrate on what is important to answer and what isn’t.
Next I asked David White about the concept of digital ‘visitors’ and ‘residents’ – a proposal he came up with Alison Le Cornu in order to challenge the term ‘digital native’ / ‘digital immigrant’ typology developed by Marc Perensky to describe learners coming through the system, who have never known anything but computers in their lives. The assumption in Perensky’s work is that these people will be fundamentally different from their older teachers (the ‘immigrants’), who have not engaged with digital technology so whole-heartedly. The ‘Digital Natives’ typology, aside from its dodgy colonial overtones, does not really account for the broad age profile of people using social media.
David and Alison’s concept of visitors and residents is a far more supple way of describing online behaviour which accounts for some people in their sixties being more adept users that people in their 20s. David explained that it was not just the time you spend on line, but what purpose you have in being there that puts you in the visitor or resident category. Visitors tend to use the internet mostly for transactions – paying bills, sending emails, buying products, while residents have conversations and maintain friendships online. For the visitor, the internet is a tool, for the resident the internet is a way to create and perform identity. If you are interested in reading further I highly recommend David’s work, as well as the entertaining paper by Stephen Sheely “Latour meets the digital natives: what do we really know?).
Next I asked Jenny Delasalle about the new social network Piirus (pronounced ‘Pie-rus’). Jenny described Piirus as an a social networking website that matches you with other researchers with similar interests. From there you can take the conversation into any other digital space you like, such as email or Twitter. I was impressed when I joined up that it recommended one of my best academic friends a person I might like to collaborate with. Jenny pointed out that the value of these kinds of networking sites is they save you a lot of time looking for like minded people through keywords or just randomly bumping into them at conferences.
I asked the last panellist, Michael Duigan about the ways he uses social media actively in his research. Michael uses data generated on social networks, but emphasized the value of social media in creating a network of participants, policy makers and fellow academics with whom you can share you work in progress. He argued that this helped create new ideas and connections, which, in turn, moves knowledge forward, both within the academy and outside it.
Finally I asked our panellists to tell me what they thought was the most useful social media tool in their lives. I nominated ‘Pocket’ – a read it later service that helps you to easily share content on other channels, which was recommended by my friend Jason Downs (a total productivity nerd – check out his website). Jenny nominated Evernote, a cloud based personal database which is free and can be used to store images, sound and text. The other panellists all agreed that Twitter was the most helpful tool in their work, both for locating information and for the kinds of conversations and friendships that can develop there. While I like to use special print twitter clients such a tweet bot, and tweet deck, David preferred to use a generic twitter client on his iPhone. The more we talked, it became apparent that social media tools and preferences are highly personal. It’s not surprising therefore, that many new people new to social media find it difficult to choose what tools and platforms they were engagement.
So what’s an academic to do if they want to be more ‘digital’? Well, I encourage you just to have a go. Play with some of the tools and think about how you might be able to move from being a digital visitor to a digital resident.
See you online sometime! The best place to find me is in Twitter - @thesiswhisperer
Thank you to our panel and viewers for tuning in and contributing to our discussion. This is just a summary of the topics discussed, so if want to hear more you can watch the full Google+ Hangout on Air here.