Why bother ‘moving online’ in academia? And how to make this move work in practice? *

by Annika Zorn (European University Institute)

The ‘going digital’ trend has been substantially transforming many sectors of the economy. Not so long ago, a young musician would have had to convince big record company executives of her talents. Today, she can bypass the old gatekeepers by recording her songs on her desktop, kick-starting her career by raising money online through crowdfunding, and getting known by putting her songs online on YouTube. Those who earned the big money and decided how things should be done, had to invent new business models or had to give up their selling power to new market entrants. The music industry is only one of many examples where digital tools and practices have been transforming an entire sector (The Economist, The music industry and the digital revolution, published on YouTube 19 July 2016.)

Does this digital trend that is transforming many areas of our life and society have any meaning for us academics?

Looking closer at what the digital trend is all about, we quickly get to the core business of academic institutions. Moving online is mainly about the generation of new, different data; about new ways in which information is stored and new channels through which knowledge is shared; and about new ways for creating products, information or knowledge.

How is the move online manifesting in academia (some examples):

(1) Sharing of knowledge: Education

Only ten years ago, it would have been impossible for most of us to attend a lecture series by a world-class philosophy professor. In 2009, the recording of a very popular lecture series on Justice by Michael Sandel, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, was made available on YouTube. Millions of people across the globe have ‘attended’ his lecture series ‘Justice: What’s the right thing to do?’ since.

Today, online courses (whether for a fee or for free in a MOOC format), offer you the possibility to access educational offers and training wherever you are at your pace (Chapter 1; Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6). And students of future generations will increasingly expect universities to provide easy access to academic knowledge in interactive formats (Epilogue).

(2) Sharing of knowledge: Research communication

Research findings are shared differently by academics today. Articles are published in open-access journals or stored in open-access repositories. Academics also increasingly engage with broader audiences outside traditional media channels through social media and blogs (Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9).

(3) Creation of Knowledge: Engaged research

Moving online offers the possibility of creating knowledge through new collaborative efforts. Wikipedia is only one example of how knowledge is created in completely new forms by a crowd of people who have no accredited expertise.

In a similar vain, academic institutions have been opening up to include groups of people outside the academy in the process of academic knowledge creation. (Chapter 2). Through the expansion of lifelong learning, professionals and citizens can be involved in the more democratic space of online education. There they take on roles as teachers, peer-to-peer critics, as well as learners (Chapter 3, Chapter 10).

By merging what traditionally has been inside and outside academia, knowledge loops are created. These loops allow knowledge to be continuously created, updated, tested, questioned and shared. It is this collaborative effort that connects dispersed information and ideas which finally makes redundant the academic in his ivory tower.

Certainly, a lot has already happened in recent years in higher education in order to move the academy online. However, despite the scattered adoption of online practices, we argue that traditional higher education institutions are still far from grasping the full potential that moving online offers to the academy. Too many academics still consider online tools at best a well-meaning toy. Online initiatives by academics or single projects remain a rare thing in the wider university campus. Too often, misconceptions, prejudices and a lack of support prevent the adoption of online academic practices.

Moving online offers many different opportunities to higher education institutions and academics to re-invent their academic practices. The case studies shared in this book show ways, in how this can all be done.

Higher Education in the Digital Age. Moving academia online (2018). Edited by Annika Zorn, Jeff Haywood and Jean-Michel Glachant. Open-access or Ebook/hard copy by publisher.

*The author wishes to thank Jonathan Fitchett for editing support.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Annika Zorn: Teaching and Learning Skills Expert, European University Institute. She is founder of an online school (Florence online School of Regulation), for which she also set-up a digital strategy. She is an experienced trainer of trainers and higher education teachers, and a senior expert for knowledge creation and sharing projects (with a focus on creating links between academic expertise and world of practitioners). She has worked with a wide set of European institutions and leading academics from different disciplines across the globe. Annika holds a PhD from the EUI. Personal Website – @ZornAnnika 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *