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Can Tech Bolster the Academy?

Academic research needs technology to remain competitive and cost-effective.

Amid the current backdrop of economic challenges, higher education institutions are grappling with operational challenges that can shake their identities to the core. But that doesn't mean academia should sacrifice its research work. Campus Technology interviewed Johanna Blakley, deputy director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, for her views on how institutions can use technology to support the academy.

Campus Technology: What is the Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy project?

Johanna Blakley: In spring 2010, the Office of Research Advancement at USC asked the Norman Lear Center to lead a series of meetings on "Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy," and ask faculty how to keep USC at the forefront of research, particularly in the use of new technology to enable collaborative research.

One reason the Lear Center was tapped to lead this effort was because of our work over the past 10 years on our Creativity, Commerce & Culture project, which explores new ways of framing the artistic, legal, and ethical issues facing creative industries and individual artists in the digital age. We believe that the challenge for academia is similar to the one faced by music and publishing. We would like to play a part in making sure that academia doesn't find it as hard to adapt to new technology as these industries have.

CT: Do digital technologies already play a significant role in academic research?

Blakley: Unfortunately, new technology has not had as much of an impact on the academy as it should have. Part of the problem is tenure guidelines: Collaborative work and digital publishing are often given short shrift in the tenure review process. USC has just revised its guidelines in order to make sure that scholars who embrace new models for research and dissemination are rewarded for their trail blazing rather than punished for it.

CT: Which research technologies could help keep the academy productive in spite of the poor economy?

Blakley: Crowdsourcing is easier said than done, but I'm optimistic about open transcription tools, for instance, that allow amateurs to contribute to labor-intensive scholarly efforts. DotSUB, the open translation system, is incredibly inspiring to me. And I think most of us were pretty surprised by the success of Wikipedia. It should serve as a reminder that the academy can also take advantage of the tremendous human capital available online in order to pursue complex research initiatives that would be too costly without an engaged volunteer workforce.

CT: Do you foresee any big changes relevant to the academy that IT planners should be aware of?

Blakley: I hope lots of big changes are coming! I hope universities listen more intently to their IT people! And I'd really like to see more IT professionals spend more time connecting the dots between tools for teaching--the typical emphasis--and tools for academic research. I think pedagogy is too often the sole focus. It's partly because students demand a more technologically sophisticated environment, as well they should. But, as we all know, many powerful faculty members are resistant to new technology. Many of them would prefer to continue conducting research as it was done a century ago. It can be an uphill battle, but I hope that IT planners will make the extra effort to get faculty excited about new tools that could revolutionize the scope of their research.

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