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The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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1.7  Creating the environment

An image of a man climbing a rock face.
Figure 6  A sense of independence

In order to encourage this frictionless type of output, universities can engage in several parallel functions. The first is staff development, although it is essential to promote a sense of independence, since most of the tools are very easy to use. Nevertheless what is often useful is a space, or allowance, that legitimises exploration with these tools, overcomes some initial concerns and establishes a peer support network. In the podstars project I ran at The Open University (Weller, 2010), which encouraged academics to start generating video outputs, these were the most common positive elements of the project. For example, this participant commented, ‘It gave me confidence to get on and try it. I am already using it in my research and indirectly I am using it for teaching, via communications to large cohorts of students on the science website’.

The emphasis on any staff development then should be on empowerment and liberation, rather than on training in specific software packages. The type of staff development required is probably located somewhere in between Google's 20 per cent time, which developers can use to work on interesting projects, and the standard IT training courses, in that it needs some direction and technical support but is best served by allowing a diverse range of projects and encouraging creativity.

A second function for universities to perform is to remove obstacles, or perceived obstacles, to the production of such outputs. This will be most apparent in promotion criteria, which almost exclusively focus on traditional outputs such as journal articles. Related to the formal recognition of such outputs in promotion cases is the informal acceptance within an institution. The benefits of an open, digital, networked approach to research, public engagement and teaching need to be recognised by both senior management and colleagues and not dismissed as merely ‘playing’.

Lastly, although third-party sites such as YouTube are often the best tools at delivering such content, the provision of educational and institutional context is important, as it provides both recognition and increases the profile of the individual and institution. This might be in the form of a YouTube channel, an iPhone app, a university portal, a departmental blog, a newsletter and so on.

It is through these approaches that the cultivating environment which will encourage the bottom-up production of varied content will emerge. Given the potential benefits in profile, engagement and costs, these are relatively small changes to introduce.

The extract from The Digital Scholar finishes here.