Digital Students

I’ve been thinking a bit about Digital Scholarship, thoughts largely prompted by starting to read Martin Weller’s The Digital Scholar: How technology is transforming scholarly practice. (This isn’t a review, just rambling prompted by my reading) Martin’s book seems to be focused on the experience of academic staff, but digital scholarship is for me,  about students as much as academics and there’s an interesting quotation in chapter 1– “When teenagers are asked what they want from the Internet, the most common response is to get ‘new information.’ Close behind, at about 75 percent, is to ‘learn more or to learn better.’”


Now, when I see phrases like “learn better” my natural response is to wonder exactly what that means.  There are clearly limits to learning in a formal setting. Students only have to do enough to get their degree, or doctorate, and, unless they pursue their studies, or enter a vocation that requires that they use the knowledge they acquire, are free to forget it all the minute they’ve received the notification that they have passed.  I’m not suggesting that they do, but it does make me wonder whether “learn better” means “Arrive what I need to do as quickly as possible”? I think most of my academic colleagues would see that as a rather reductive and depressing approach albeit one that was entirely consistent with the neo-liberal attempt to commodify everything. The close relationship between “new information” and “learning” is also telling. Information clearly is a commodity. Learning (I think) is not.


What’s interesting about the social web is that it provides both. Information is freely available, although I suppose it’s not necessarily accurate. You might learn a lot through responses to your twitter accounts, blog posts, Wikipedia entries and so on, but only if you a) make an effort to make them, and b) anyone reads and responds to them, which is a roundabout way of saying that you need to be active in these networks if you are to learn from them. Fine as far as it goes, but a couple of things I’ve read recently throw a bit of a spanner into the works. Firstly, if you sign up to any free service, you, or more accurately, your on-line activity, become the commodity. The service provider can use that data in any way it sees fit. At worst you could lose all your data. (You do back up all your tweets, Flickr photos, Google Docs etc don’t you? Of course you do.) I suppose it’s more likely that a change in the way the service worked would mean you’d have to start working in different ways. Secondly, I do wonder if the instant provision of information is conducive to learning. The work of Carol Dweck at Stanford is quite persuasive in showing that learners with a mindset that focuses on making errors and working to correct them are much more effective then those who believe in natural intelligence, the latter being much more likely to give up if they don’t find a quick fix. So if a Google search doesn’t find the answer do they decide there isn’t one?

That’s a caricature of course, and I’m not for a second arguing that we shouldn’t use the social web in HE. For a start I don’t think we have any choice as it isn’t going to go away, and in any case as the book shows, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But I do wonder how we might introduce it to students, and how we might encourage a properly critical approach. I suspect, although I don’t yet have any evidence of this, that a study of the bibliographies in student papers would show a much higher percentage of traditional books and journal articles, than of (say) Wikipedia pages and YouTube videos. If I’m right about that, and let me repeat that I have no statistically significant evidence for such a claim, it then raises the issue of whether students are discouraged by academics from using these resources.  Of course, we want all our students to use academically rigorous and (preferably) peer reviewed resources, but if we accept the constructivist arguments that learning is an active process, not a passive one we also want them to share their learning, through projects like “Student as Producer”, but also more generally. Anyone know of any major projects or courses where students get credit for sharing their work, as well as for producing it?