Miscellany — February 2010

Blind reading: smarter resources need perceptive readers

In the spring 2004 issue of the Europaeum Review, the place of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in higher education is highlighted in two separate articles. The first, a general report on the Experts' Conference of the Europaeum Projects on the Future of European Universities (Bonn University, June 2003), notes among its core recommendations that

. . . Leading universities need to promote awareness and use of websites and laptops to enhance teaching and learning, which could be summarised as every student a laptop, every professor a website. . . (p. 17; a precis of the articles is now online, though curiously dated as written two years before the articles appeared in the Review)

The second report, a student's perspective on the same conference, emphasises this "necessity to develop the use of ICT in teaching and research", confidently asserting that "students can handle perfectly the use of a computer without any training" (p. 18).

How can we — teachers, universities, even nations — resist? It sounds so natural, a simple question of logistics. But is the creation and use of digital resources, with its enhancing effect on education, in fact so natural and easy? Is our use of digital resources just a matter of evolutionary adaptation — each generation naturally better than the one before?

These reports suggest that "to enhance teaching and learning" in higher education, every teacher must build educational digital resources — which will of course be useful and engaging, because digital. Implicitly this is unproblematic: every academic knows how to use a computer. To take education into the brave new world, all we need to do is give students laptops, because they are naturally skilled users of computers and hence of digital resources.

This begs several questions. The problem stems from the unexamined belief that ICT is some sort of unitary object or activity that can be applied with more or less equal results in all places, at all times. Referring to it monolithically as "ICT", saying things like "universities need to promote awareness and use of . . ." and other similarly generalizing statements, contributes to the belief in the unitary nature of the digital world.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in our understanding and use of that digital world is print technology. It is so good at what it does, and so familiar to us, that the technology is invisible and seems natural to the reader; we conflate learning to use the technology of the book with learning to read, and give little thought to it. By analogy, anyone who is able to use email and surf the Web will be able to use academic digital resources properly.

But studies in the history of the book are making us increasingly aware of how much the technology of the book also affects our reading and understanding of what print conveys. It may be that "reading", as we currently understand it, is actually determined and defined by print technology. Reading digital texts may be subtly different from reading printed texts: there is already evidence from studies of learning in children that reading a document on-screen involves more right-hemisphere activity in the brain than reading the same document from a printed page. If this is true, the application of ICT at all levels of education may not be entirely benign, since the ability to judge truth and falsehood is thought to be largely a function of the left, language-dominated hemisphere.

When we come to digital textual resources, we do so with these unexamined expectations as part of our intellectual makeup. We look for a technical simplicity and transparency approaching the "invisibility" of the book. And we expect the use we make of these digital texts — the actual reading — to be something that occurs almost independent of the delivery system. This expectation works in print because the relationship between content, form and function is quite narrowly constrained by the technology: content may vary, but there is little substantive variety in form or function. The same is not necessarily true of digital resources, which can combine these three elements of the text in a far greater number of ways. We can create and re-create conceivably limitless kinds of digital objects (including digital texts): by their very nature these do not constitute a single type of "digital resource", and so they are significantly different from print.

It is easy to be misled about digital resources by the influence of print on most current high-use digital provision of academic resources. The mass-aggregator digital resources (online journals and e-books) provide researchers with quick access to vast amounts of potentially relevant material; but they remain fundamentally print-bound, because they work from print origins and generally deliver their materials in imitation of the printed page. Generating page-images of books and journals means they are tied to the technical limitations of print. The resources are flat: technology provides only speed and quantity, delivering more page-images faster; searching is limited to abstracts, or to files created by inexact optical character recognition of scanned pages — and current ratings of 90% mean that the searches will miss 10 out of every 100 possible hits, with no way of knowing whether or not the missing 10 were the most important. This mode of technical provision, valuable for what it does do, does not represent the nature or range of digital resources. Instead, it reinforces expectations about simplicity of use by flattening content, form and function. These systems do not give new modes of textual production and publication, but simply new modes of print distribution.

Using these resources are a blinding experience, blinding us to the technology involved. It reinforces the false equation of invisible with natural, and leads to the expectation of further changes in the technology (make it simpler) without commensurate calls for changes in the user (make us smarter).

"Every professor a website"? What kind of website? Image sets (thumbnails, high-resolution, zoomable?), HTML texts, XML texts, related database sets, page-images, multimedia (audio, video?), chat rooms, Blogs, Wikis, Twitters? Should the sites be static, interactive, modifiable, current, archival? Should access be monitored, limited, open, charged? Who pays for their creation? Who manages access? Who maintains the site? Who clears copyright and fair-use? There is no single digital but a host of digitals. I want JSTOR or my e-book to be simple to use, because what it offers is relatively simple and unrelated to the technology of its delivery. I want the technology of my e-book to approach the invisibility of the book's technology, because that is exactly what it is trying to be: a book. But it certainly doesn't represent the future of the host of digitals possible, which could affect and influence to varying degrees both teaching and research.

Digital technology is more than computers; it is also the textual and meta-textual systems used in the resources. Creating and using digital resources does not depend solely on the kinds of content digitized, but on a significant educational undertaking accompanying the use of such resources. We have the opportunity to create and use genuinely intelligent resources: but such resources require intelligent users, users educated in the intelligent use of complex digital systems. Such resources will not replace print (it may be we can only truly read the printed page); but they must be freed from the domination of print technology so as to generate their own meaningful information. This calls for an educational initiative: not only to promote the creation of intelligent digital resources, but also — and no less important — to educate users to be intelligent in the use of such resources. This is not simply a generational problem. My own children, like many others, are skilled at playing their computer games and amazingly adept at conceptualizing the virtual worlds. But that will not make them naturally good at using educational digital resources. The skills are not simply transferable without specialized training.

Intelligent digital resources require educated users, users who are given the opportunity and support to learn such techniques by using these kinds of resources under supervision. An intelligent digital resource requires scholarly intelligence and operational expertise. The Electronic Enlightenment Project is an example of educators, publishers and scholars working to create such intelligent and rich digital resources. What we need is the determination among policy makers and educational organizations to create the educated users for them.

What do such resources offer? As a brief example, consider the citation that appears on the reverse of the title page of the Europaeum Review:

. . . Je vois avec plaisir qu'il se forme dans l'Europe une république immense d'esprits cultivés. La lumière se communiqué de tous les côtés.

It is a quotation from Voltaire: "In a letter to Prince Dmittri Alekseevish Golitsyn 14 August 1967". Aside from the misprinted date — 1767 not 1967 — (which should remind us that neither print nor digital texts free us from the need to read and copyedit) what can we learn about the occasion for this remark, about its context and about the author and his addressee?

Looking up the letters in Electronic Enlightenment, focusing for a moment just on the letters between Voltaire and Golitsyn (other spellings include: Golitsuin, Golitsyn, Golitsyne, and of course Голи́цын), one is presented with an interesting series of eleven surviving letters that offer much more than a decontextualized sound-bite. This group of letters cover in a living dialogue European themes still being addressed by academic conferences, research groups and authors. In this exchange there is both explicit and slyly allusive discussion of enlightenment, tolerance and education; educational exchanges and their effects on the individuals and societies involved; printing, censorship, book distribution and readership; celebrity, self-promotion, gossip and spin; the role of the elite in furthering education; war against an Islamic enemy; and the use of education and reason to influence policy makers, making the (European) world a more humane and more tolerant place. Further exploration of the letters in Electronic Enlightenment leads one to listings of books referred to in the letters, to digital copies of those works, to the surrounding contexts for quotations in the letters, to geographical information about Ferney and St Petersburg, even to pseudonyms, nicknames and variant spellings of the individuals' names. None of this information, however, is accessible by a simple word search; none of it is provided with a label certifying it as "safe for those without experience" or for those unwilling to work at understanding.

Intelligent digital resources can provide much, but provide it like a great library — great not just in quantity but also in scholarly principles, principles applied from the author creating the individual text to the repository's multi-textual organization and rules of access. These are principles that open books and digitals, and free ideas. But intelligent resources, making the best possible use of the full range of digitals and ICTs, need intelligent users, educated in using intelligent information systems and in applying scholarship to the information recovered.

— Robert V. McNamee
Director, Electronic Enlightenment Project
© 2010 University of Oxford

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