The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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2.2  Disturbance and change

Described image
Figure 2 Change

Both of these models of resilience offer a useful means of considering the response of academia in general and individual institutions to the potential impact of new technologies. Building on Holling’s work, resilience is now often defined as ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks’ (e.g. Hopkins, 2009).

This definition places the emphasis on the capacity to retain function and identity, and this is particularly relevant to scholarship. If scholarship is viewed as a set of functions that are useful to society in general (taking Boyer’s four functions as an example), then the aim of digital resilience is to retain these core functions, but to allow them to be realised in new forms. This places a clear distinction between function and form. As Naughton (2009) stresses in terms of key factors about the impact of the internet:

Don’t confuse existing forms with the functions that they enable. It’s the functions that matter. Forms may be transient, the product of historical or technological circumstances.


In terms of higher education practice then, resilience is about utilising technology to change practices where this is desirable, but to retain the underlying function and identity that the existing practices represent, if they are still deemed to be necessary. The practices themselves are not core to scholarship rather that they are the methods through which core functions are realised and these methods can and should change. The peer review process in academic publishing for example, is a method of ensuring quality, objectivity and reliability. But it may not be the only or the best way of realising this, or at least its current incarnation may be subject to change. A resilience perspective would seek to ensure these core functions were protected, and not just resist at the level of the method.

Although resilience can be seen at the individual level, it is perhaps best applied to the institutional level, which can be seen as a complex ecosystem in itself, comprised of a number of individuals, behaviours and tasks. The resilience approach will now be considered for two current digital challenges, at two separate universities.

In this approach Walker’s four aspects of resilience will be considered, and a score allocated against each aspect to provide an indicative measure of overall resilience. Each factor is given a subjective ranking of 1 to 10 (1 = low resilience, 10 = high resilience). A high score of more than 35 would indicate that it is probably not a particularly new challenge, (or that the institution was exceptionally well adapted already), and a low score of less the 15 would indicate that the institution faces a considerable threat from this challenge which it has not adapted to.

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