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The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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1.3 Quality

An image of a painted sign reading ‘quality’.
Figure 4  Is quality an issue?

Much of the success of Web 2.0 has been driven by its simplicity. This has seen a mass democratisation of expression, as anyone can now create a blog, or share a video or a photo. This has led to innovation and inventiveness which would not have arisen through conventional broadcast channels. However, it has also given rise to an unprecedented amount of what we might charitably label ‘ephemera’. This shift in filtering from pre- to post-dissemination raises a key issue for scholars: How do they maintain and judge quality in a world where everyone is a broadcaster or publisher?

One response is to resist any such shift and to retain the peer-review model, which has served scholars very well. This is a viable approach, but even then, as PLoS (the Public Library of Science open access journal) have demonstrated, there are different models that may be explored.

The issue of quality is perhaps more keenly felt when we consider teaching. I raised the idea of pedagogy of abundance in Chapter 8 [Week 5 of this course], and in such a pedagogy the content will vary greatly in terms of quality. In The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen (2007) argues that such abundance does not produce high-quality, merely an outpouring of low-quality, content: ‘instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys – many with no more talent than our primate cousins – are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity.’ If you compare any random piece of Web 2.0 content with that produced by a professional, this is likely to be true. But the question is not whether some people produce poor quality content, obviously they do and the majority in fact, but whether as a whole this system can produce high-quality content.

Keen argues that it does not, and it may be that we are making false comparisons. It is not whether a YouTube clip is as good as a professional television show or movie but rather whether it is a good YouTube clip that is important. These often trade off high production quality for inventiveness. A blog post may not be the equivalent of the inside story of investigative journalism, but because it is free from constraints of readership, word length or deadlines, the blog post may provide more thoughtful and detailed analysis of the subject than is found in the mainstream media.

From a scholarly perspective then, quality will depend on the purpose and there is an implicit message within different types of content. High-quality content, such as professionally produced teaching or research material, suggests authority. Students will have one set of behaviours associated with this, for example, reading, dissecting and summarising. Low-quality, individual items, however, because of their obvious ease of production, can be seen as an invitation to participate. Therefore if the intention is to encourage engagement then low-quality routes may be more fruitful than seeking to produce professional broadcast material. Around a research project then one might imagine a range of different types of output, all realising different functions.

Keen's fear is that the cult of the amateur drives out the professional, that there is no room for newspapers if everyone reads blogs and that society will be the poorer. This is beyond the scope of this book, but in terms of education, the range of content can be beneficial, since ‘amateurs’ often create content which addresses subjects that academics may not and also in a manner which differs from traditional teaching.

For learners the issue becomes one of assessing the quality and appropriateness of resources. The role of education here seems vital, in both providing the critical framework for evaluating and assessing content and also in demonstrating how such content can be used to develop deep understanding of a topic.