Unlocking the toolbox

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Howard Burton asks how we should use technology tools to improve scholarly communications

I make a habit of telling people that my company was founded on a sincere attempt to answer the question, How can the tools of modern technology genuinely transform scholarly communication and learning? This is, of course, a loaded question. One person's 'genuine' transformation is another's fad of the week, while a transformation, in and of itself, hardly implies movement in a positive direction.  

Still, given the stakes involved, it is, I feel, very much worth taking a moment to step back and try to carefully investigate this question from first principles. Blame it on my physics background.  

It doesn't require much insight to recognise that, thanks to rapid changes in technology, our modern toolbox to potentially improve scholarly communication and learning is vastly more expanded today than it was 30 years ago. But the key question is: what should be done with it? 

Typically, when new technologies are introduced, people immediately use them to replace what went on before, often taking years to appreciate their unique features that are – yes – transformative. So it was, for example, that when radio (wireless) threatened to replace the telegraph for ship-to-shore communication, a primary concern at the time was the apparent liability of easy eavesdropping – a 'liability' which was eventually recognised as the key to ushering in the age of mass communication.   Years later, when television first appeared and the power of a 'voice-over image' had not yet been appreciated, news presenters sat rigidly in front of the camera reading the headlines just as they had on radio for years before.

Fast-forward 80 years or so and we see similar sorts of things in the world of scholarly communication, with video cameras primarily used either for filming lectures and seminars or creating clips of designated experts explaining core points for 'video textbooks'. These have their uses, of course – particularly when twinned with the enormous impact of the internet on distance learning. But while the communicative reach of scholarly engagement has been unquestionably transformed, what about the actual content on offer? How might our modern toolkit improve on that too?

To best answer that question, it seems prudent to go back a step and examine what the outstanding issues are in the area of scholarly communication and learning in the first place. Anyone who has spent much time in an academic environment knows that universities are invariably tasked with several simultaneous priorities, many of them unaligned, and some veering precipitously on the contradictory: disseminating a broad cultural and educational understanding, increasing knowledge in a large number of specialised areas, developing transferable problem-solving skills, bestowing credentials for future employment, safeguarding core societal values, and so forth. 

Given this rather daunting welter of responsibilities, it is hardly surprising that many universities find themselves oscillating between showcasing their devotion to fundamental research and scholarly excellence and demonstrating their overwhelming societal relevance. Some disciplines, of course, such as environmental studies or medical research, find it easier to bridge this gap than others (such as cosmology or classics).   

But whatever one's field, a fundamental issue that all major institutions of higher learning face is finding a way to successfully marry teaching with research. This goes much deeper than the ongoing problem of convincing leading research faculty to spend time teaching undergraduates. A far greater concern is how to best expose top students to the captivating world of top flight scholarship while they simultaneously develop basic competency in their field through required courses.  

As any academic will tell you, research is different – often drastically so – from coursework. Acquiring core knowledge through undergraduate courses is, of course, necessary for eventual research success, but is far from sufficient.  

Unfortunately, a glimpse at the landscape of today's educational tools reveals that, while there are some interesting new options available to help students improve their grades and coursework, such as JoVE, there is almost nothing to inspire the very top students with examples of what real research culture is like. 

Fortunately, however, this is precisely the sort of thing that today's technology can do. Video camera and editing technology now enable us to easily capture candid and inspiring insights from leading researchers and package them in an accessible and stimulating way. This is, you might be unsurprised to learn, what Ideas Roadshow is all about.

But hold on, I can hear you say, How do you get researchers to speak candidly in front of a camera to begin with? Surely that's very difficult? 

Well, no, actually. 

I appreciate that this might be difficult to believe. During my years as an academic administrator, many's the time I would hear a disgruntled university official bemoan how most faculty members resolutely avoided talking publicly about their research.   Which rather confused me at the time, because, in putting together a public outreach program, my greatest difficulty was finding a way to get academics to stop talking about their research so that audiences could go home.  

Clearly, the problem wasn't the talking, per se, but how it was being done.  Summarising one's life's work in five minutes to a disinterested journalist who will likely take it out of context, or being trotted out as 'star faculty' for a fundraising dinner, is hardly the sort of thing that most of us would find compelling. But give people the opportunity to talk openly and honestly about what they've dedicated their lives to, and there's no limit to the fascinating and inspiring insights that will pour forth. 

This is not only intrinsically interesting, it also serves a very important pedagogical role. Many top students complete an entire degree without having a clear sense of what frontline research is really like. That is not only a missed opportunity to encourage students to pursue advanced research, it also naturally increases the societal gap between the world of research and that of the average citizen. 

Meanwhile those who do pursue higher degrees often find the transition from coursework to independent research a difficult one, a problem frequently exacerbated by a fear that their struggles are somehow unique and thus a reflection of their own inadequacy. Sensitive faculty members are well aware of this problem and make great efforts to prevent their students from losing confidence early in their research careers, but such influences are typically the exception rather than the rule (particularly in our age of increased distance learning), and a great many students who would make wonderful researchers invariably fall through the cracks.

Materials specifically targeted to such students, where they can sample world-class experts candidly admitting their own failures and frustrations, go a long away towards helping young researchers put their own anxieties into perspective, naturally refocusing them instead on a wide range of fascinating open questions that drew them to the field in the first place.

So that's our answer to the question I posed earlier: today's video cameras and editing software now make it possible to produce new materials that give students direct access to vital insights into the world of research and scholarship that otherwise simply don't exist. 

What does all this mean for me, you might well ask yourself. You'll probably be expecting me to say that the main lesson from all of this is that every academic institution worthy of the name should go out and get a subscription to Ideas Roadshow. Which is, of course, true. But not really my point.

I spoke about how today's video camera and editing technology now make possible the creation of a new and important pedagogical resources. But what I didn't mention was that modern technology has not only made this possible, it is also, all things considered, very cheap. As a quick perusal of the internet will reveal, it is not difficult to make videos these days; with a little effort, a motivated person can learn the essentials in a few months.

What is generally much harder, on the other hand, is to find people who have sufficient skills and desire to create such resources in the first place. Fortunately, universities have lots of these people around. They're called graduate students. Most of them will be inappropriate, of course - they won't be motivated enough, or knowledgeable enough, or sufficiently pedagogically aware, or have good enough communication skills. Only a small percentage could do the job well. But there are an awful lot of graduate students. And the right ones will find that being engaged in such a project is not only personally fulfilling, it will actually help them develop a broader and more meaningful context to their own research projects.

Which is all to say that if you're a librarian or administrator or faculty member at some university, you should really say to yourself: 'Hang on, in addition to purchasing a (multi-year) subscription to Ideas Roadshow, we can easily make our own, tailor-made, pedagogical video resources featuring our own faculty that will enormously benefit our students!'  

And you'd be right. But do remember to get a subscription too.

Howard Burton was the founding executive director of Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and is CEO of Ideas Roadshow