OUJISCO – Digital Scholarship at the OU

Yesterday I attended one of the current JISC eResearch Roadshows at the OU in lovely Milton Keynes with the great hashtag #oujisco. It was an interesting day with talks from David Ferguson from NeSC and Graham Pryor from DCC both speaking but my real reason for attending was to find out more about the work that the Open University is doing around Digital Scholarship.

[For a general report on the day Doug Clow liveblogged the event.]

The Digital Scholarship project at the OU is led by Professor Martin Weller and Dr Nick Pearce and is focused on researching just what Digital Scholarship is but also promoting the uptake of Digital Scholarship within the OU. This obviously leads to a slightly schizophrenic project as on one hand they need to be slightly sceptical about things whereas on the other they are acting as cheerleaders. That said it seemed to me that the two of them were a good balance in this respect as martin was obviously a committed cheerleader whereas Nick demonstrated a little more scepticism!

The main aim of Digital Scholarship is to find a way to give academic activity on the open web the same weight as outputs in more traditional scholarly outputs (book chapters, conference speaking, journal articles etc). In order to do this it is closely following the principles of Boyers Scholarship – 2MB PDF here and mapping digital activity against them.


A standard issue that they have been facing with the evangelism element of the project is that there remains a lack of trust in the stability and sustainability of many of the social web tools. Will they be around in a month, year, decade, longer. I think in alot of ways this argument isn’t quite as relevant these days – there is rarely any need for a single point of failure. A presentation has every chance of getting considerably more views on Slideshare but that doesn’t mean that for preservation reasons it might not be best to have a version in another location (i.e. an institutional respository). One of the strengths of the UKOER programme was the insistence that OERs were released to a minimum of two locations – one of which had to be JorumOpen. This allowed projects to release resources out into the wilds of the open web if they wanted – greatly increasing the possibility of takeup but also having the peace of mind that the resources would be properly preserved (though perhaps digital preservation is more of a preoccupation for JISC than the creator of the resources.) Currently this does increase the workload for staff tasked with depositing resources and maintaining them but tools that allow deposit in multiple locations via one interface are now more than possible and hopefully just around the corner.

A case for the speed of digital outputs against the slower processes of traditional publishing methods was made when Nick discussed the fact that he research the use of technology (particularly web tools) by academics in 2007 and he has a paper due to be published based on that work later this year. However the original research does not feature one mention of Twitter as it was barely a blip at the time of the research whereas now it has a much higher profile. That fact will immediately date the paper.

There are alot of parallels between this activity and many of the ideals of openness that JISC supports across our work. It certainly seems to be close to both the Open Access and Open Education agendas. [I actually like the idea of the Open Scholar as defined in this quote.]

“the Open Scholar is someone who makes their intellectual projects and processes digitally visible and who invites and encourages ongoing criticism of their work and secondary uses of any or all parts of it–at any stage of its development.”

The OU is seeking to build this kind of concept into the ‘personality’ it portrays externally. It has already taken the (unusual?) step of adding participation in the open web to the promotion criteria for academics alongside more traditional measures (though they admitted they were still working on appropriate measures for this kind of activity.)

Currently they are working hard on developing appropriate metrics for contributions to the social web and are asking questions like:

    What makes a good blog?
    Can you map traditional scholarly outputs against digital work? (i.e. Podcast vs Keynote)
    How can a young academic at the start of their career make an impact in the digital space?
    How can this work make an impact if the REF does not currently even acknowledge it?

It was briefly mentioned that perhaps what was needed is something like the famous Google 20% time (or the less famous BBC Radio Labs 10% time ) that allowed academics the time to participate and experiment on the open web to find their voices and their communities.

Alot of the talk around creating metrics and perhaps build up an ‘online reputation’ score (despite fears that this could be ‘gamed’) made me think of some of the work around ‘whuffie’ that Cory Doctorow wrote about and the upcoming book from O’Reilly. It is an interesting and hugely difficult area of work that many people are trying to crack for different reasons on the web (in a previous job it was a constant topic of conversation in the office). Finding a reliable way of doing this for the academic community would be really very impressive and potentially important. Again I think it is the sort of thing that would be of equal interest to the OER community as the digital scholarship one. Recognition and reputation should never be underestimated as a driver for contributing to the open web.

It was pointed out that one side-effect of a high profile in the world of digital scholarship was increased opportunities to take part in more traditional scholarship activities! Well respected bloggers are often invited to speak at leading conferences and contribute to books & journals.

Not surprisingly Micheal Wesch was pointed to as the poster child for Digital Scholarship. The success of his YouTube videos has been amazing and massively enhanced not only his own reputation but also that of Kanses State. To some extent though this is a dangerous comparison as the huge success of Wesch is unlikely to be something that can replicated any time soon.

Throughout the presentation(s) a list kept popping up that covered the most common issues/barriers that the project had identified for academics to really make the jump to digital scholarship. One of the things that immediate struck me was that it could be exactly the same issue for anyone looking to take part in the OER movement – or in fact just become an active participant on the web with any kind of work related focus. None of these issues are insurmountable and for many of them the perception is a bigger problem than the reality but they do continue to be identified as obstacles time after time;


This brought to mind the work Forrester did around identifying how and what people actually contributed to the web and actually how few of them were actually creators rather than consumers.

I found it to be an interesting day that left me with a great deal to think about – not to mention a couple more blogs to read. I’ll be following this work closely in the months to come particularly looking out for opportunities to join it up with both OER and open access work.

3 thoughts on “OUJISCO – Digital Scholarship at the OU

  1. Martin

    Thanks for the review Matt, and good to meet you finally! You are exactly right in the similarity between OER issues and dig schol issues – this is probably unsurprising given that scholarship in the Boyer definition at least encompasses teaching and outreach, both of which are the principal functions of OER. Even wider, when I was involved in a couple of OER projects recently, the arguments were the same as though as about e-learning in general – commercialisation, deprofessionalisation, commoditisation of education, etc. Which is kinda depressing given we had all these arguments in the 90s.
    Agree about the danger of promoting Wesch as case study (even though it was me who did it) – he might be seen as the exception rather than the rule. But what he illustrates is an almost unequivocal case of how digital outputs can have ‘impact’.
    We’ll have to have that pint (or two) sometime soon…

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