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Digital innovation and yet more rhetoric

Martin Weller’s The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice has finally come up on my to-read list, and I’ve realized that I probably should have started with this book in the first place. Because Weller and Jim Groom share a lot of the same ideas on how digital and open education should operate, Digital Scholar does a great job of illustrating the ethos behind ds106, which Jim Groom was instrumental in founding (Weller actually mentions Groom in his Acknowledgements). While his work relates specifically to how teachers and scholars are interacting with digital tools and how they might approach digital pedagogy, his work is highly accessible and relevant to anyone interested in how digital media applies to education, including your very own intrepid student. Digital Scholar is more or less an overview of the ethos behind ds106, so I’m excited to explore how it’ll inform my final paper.

I went straight for the chapter on “Openness in Education,” seeing as the idea of openness as it relates to online courses is increasingly the focus of my research. Immediately I was confronted with a definition of two terms I hadn’t even realized I’d been subconsciously conflating (I think I’m finally using that word right, Dr. Whalen): digital and open. Early in this chapter Weller states that “some commentators have begun to talk of the ‘open scholar’, which is almost synonymous with the ‘digital scholar’; so closely aligned are the new technologies and open approaches.” That just about blew the doors of much of what I’d been writing and thinking about for the past few months; if I had considered separating those terms, it had only been in passing. In fact, I’d done more work to try an collapse terms instead of dissecting them, but I now see that I’ll have to include my own vision of the way the ideas of open and digital intersect within my paper. More than likely I’ll end up quoting Weller on this, and then narrow it specifically for how it fits into the pedagogy behind ds106. It’s made me realize, though, that I need to take a hard look at the terms I’m using within my paper (again) and how I’m defining each one. Using “edtech” as an umbrella term is looking less and less accurate the more I read, but I’m confident that Weller’s book will provide me with some more precise terms that I can apply to my research.

Weller also rephrases a few of the questions I’ve been discussing with Dr. Whalen:

There are two questions this link between new technologies and open education raises. The first is, what are the mechanisms by which new technologies have facilitated openness? The second is, why is openness seen as a desirable and effective mode of operation in the digital networked environment?

… but, clearly, with a great deal more eloquence than I’ve been able to apply to these ideas so far. He presents a list of characteristics that he feels open scholars might adopt, but is careful to note that “not every open scholar will adopt every one of these practices, [but] they provide an archetypal set of characteristics which allow comparison with traditional scholarly practice.” One of those practices in particular caught my eye:

Try new technologies – there is an acceptance that technology is not fixed and that new technologies are explored on an individual, ad hoc basis to ascertain where they fit into the individual’s overall portfolio of tools.

Rhetoric of innovation, anyone? This, to me, captures what is so valuable about the way ds106 approaches teaching and learning: it’s designed to be flexible. A lot of the conversation surrounding the differences between “traditional” and digital pedagogy is the rhetoric of stagnation vs. innovation–“traditional” education is stuck, is big and clunky and has trouble adopting and adapting to new ideas that are useful for students and teachers. I don’t believe that all of the doomsayers are right in that regard, but having been through quite a bit of what is generally considered more “traditional” education (if in this case we’re defining “traditional” as the absence of well-integrated open and digital tools), the implied flexibility of digital scholarship and education are deeply compelling to me. At its best, the rhetoric of innovation encourages experimentation with new tools, new approaches, and new ways to teach not because the thing itself is new, but because there is always the potential to engage with students and scholarship from a new perspective, in a better or more meaningful way.

My happy idealistic fantasy involves this kind of digital, open education becoming more accepted and not stagnating, but maintaining that flexibility while not falling into the trap of doing a new thing simply because it’s new. That’s one of the pitfalls of edtech, but we’re still learning to negotiate that space, and overall that’s an exciting place to be, even if it’s also frustrating sometimes.

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