Digital Economy USRG

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Digital Scholar by Martin Weller

Avatar photoSeptember 22, 2011
by Lisa Harris

I’m sure that regular readers and contributors to Martin’s blog will be delighted with this book. Although he takes care to be objective throughout the text, its subtitle should read something like ‘wake up and smell the coffee’. The real challenge will be getting the book onto the radar (and from there into the practice) of university staff who are still operating along more traditional lines despite massive environmental change.

Martin begins by reflecting on how his research process has changed since writing his last book just 6 years ago, which very much concurs with my own experience:

· Increased quantity of digital content available

· Advice and input from members of his social network

· Wider range of information sources drawn upon (blogs, video, tweets etc)

· Digital files of whatever type are easily sharable and accessible to any interested party, opening up research to new audiences and contributors.

Some key points for me from the book are:

The growth of ‘good enough’ technology such as skype or netbooks (as examples of the classic Christensen model of disruptive innovation) which despite lacking in refinement meet a mass market need for next to no cost – and consequently can displace more ‘professional’ products and services almost by stealth.

How to navigate the ongoing tensions between the established order and the new possibilities offered by developments in technology? For example, while learning from online resources and a global network of peers and experts offers a compelling alternative to a traditional lecture, the role of universities in providing well recognised social and accreditation functions is more difficult to replicate.

Interesting lessons from the experiences of other industries such as music and newspapers which have struggled to deal with developments in technology. Martin considers how traditional notions of scholarship (Boyer’s categories of discovery, integration, application and teaching) are challenged by the digital age and these aspects provide a framework for the chapter structure.

Worryingly, new researchers are not maximising the potential of new technologies in research. This can be explained by university reward systems which are driven by a conservative and narrow viewpoint of what constitutes ‘quality’. The consequence is that “new entrants are encouraged to be conservative while the reinterpretation of practice and exploration is left to established practitioners” – 180 degrees away from most industries where ‘fresh sets of eyes’ are encouraged to re-energise an organisation by challenging established practices.

In today’s world where information is abundant and shareable and global networks of expertise and support are accessible, the limiting factors for the individual learner are time and attention. Developing effective strategies for dealing with managing this are critical. (For example, I have switched off Tweetdeck in order to finish writing this post!)

Trying to protect traditional models of academic practice are unlikely to succeed (see newspapers and music) – Martin notes how students or conference participants will circumvent attempts at control, for example by googling for free alternatives to a set textbook, or watching more dynamic video presentations of a particular lecture topic online, or criticising a module on Facebook in a far more direct way than they would do on an official course feedback form.

I very much enjoyed the book, and as a ‘call to action’ I hope its messages get the attention that they deserve J

Originally published on


Why Study Web Science? Lessons from History

Avatar photoNovember 22, 2010
by Lisa Harris

William Dampier explored and mapped the coast of Western Australia fully 80 years before James Cook encountered Botany Bay. Largely forgotten today, Dampier landed in Shark Bay, Western Australia in 1699. He was a true pioneer with lasting influence upon such diverse fields as evolution, exploration, meteorology, navigation, commerce and travel writing. He was also a pirate who could have faced the same grisly fate as his contemporary Captain Kidd. But what does Dampier’s story have to do with Web Science in the 21stCentury? Please bear with me while I outline his achievements…

Dampier was the first man to sail three times around the world, and his best-selling accounts of his adventures inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The description of his travels and the potential he identified for trade with unknown lands helped to stimulate the South Sea Bubble.

Dampier’s maps of trade winds and ocean currents were relied upon by James Cook and even later by Horatio Nelson. Indeed, Dampier’s ‘Discourse’ of navigational detail was still in use by the British Navy well into the 20th Century. As the first naturalist to encounter all five continents, Dampier was able to compare and contrast animals and plants across the globe, introducing the world to theories of migration and likely relationships between species. The famous red notebook in which Darwin developed his theory of natural selection quotes extensively from Dampier’s observations of 150 years earlier.

Dampier is responsible for more than 1000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, giving the language such words as avocado, barbeque and chopsticks. His comparison of the flat ocean to a “millpond” is an expression that would have conjured up a rich image to contemporary readers who might themselves have never seen the sea, and it is still in popular use today.

These achievements in the early days of exploration and scientific discovery provide many parallels with the position of Web Science today. Under the umbrella of the newly created Royal Society, developments in such diverse subjects as chemistry, astronomy and mechanics were debated by the best minds of the day, and Dampier was invited to address the Fellows on several occasions. The full extent of his influence is apparent when a view is taken across disciplines – from the practical to the intellectual, and from the literary to the scientific. Dampier could see the big picture and think laterally to make comparisons and connections – a skill that was very opportune at a time when the boundaries of the physical world were being rolled back in so many directions. He was dismissive of traditional hierarchies of expertise and was not afraid to operate outside the “establishment” of his day.

William Dampier died (in debt) in 1715, and his final resting place is unknown. Today, he is largely forgotten in England. A small town has been named after him on the north west coast of Australia, but there is no mention of his exploits in Fremantle’s Maritime Museum. Thanks to the research of Diana and Michael Preston, detailed in their compelling book “A Pirate of Exquisite Mind”, Dampier’s legacy can continue to inspire a new generation of explorers and writers in the diverse fields of Web Science.

Originally published on www.lisaharrismarketing