Recently I attended a workshop in Vancouver on “Digitizing the University.” Universities Canada (UC, formerly AUCC) sponsored the event which had been targeted to presidents and provosts only. Several of us brought our Chief Information Officers along for the education and experience, because what, after all, do we know about the topic? The CIO is the expert, surely.
I learned a few things, but largely I had my growing awareness of the digital frontier validated and confirmed. UC had distributed a survey a few months back, inviting institutions to respond to questions regarding the status—or lack of—our plans for digitization. It was somewhat comforting to learn at the workshop that a wide majority of us have no plan. We almost all committed to the importance of bringing our institutions up to speed, but, with few exceptions, the majority of responses to the survey emphasized the importance of new technologies for creating efficiencies in their systems. As became patently clear over the course of the workshop, efficiency is just one piece of why we need to move to a 2.0 model of doing business. We need to be thinking much more wisely and ambitiously about leveraging digital technologies to support our overall missions. These include pedagogical approaches, research, community outreach, and so on. Every single thing we do—every activity and transaction—needs to be served and enhanced by digital resources.
A strong theme emerged over the course of two days: innovate or die. Either we will transform our universities with new paradigms of academic operations or we will be left in the dust, not just uncool but uninformed—and, worse, unresponsive to the real needs of 21st century learners. To get us to the future we need to do some strategic thinking about what digitization Memorial would mean—and that in turn requires a plan.
Of course, we have advanced many areas of the university by both necessity and innovation. Graduate Studies has long relied on Google analytics—to assess the character of applicants and current students—and on elegant application practises, a strong website, and all the available tools, such as webinars and live, real-time access to ensure we are competitive and appealing to potential applicants. Many instructors (although not enough) continue to rely on the expertise and creativity of our online learning services unit (DELTS) to transform how they teach. The registrar is investigating new ways of managing files. Libraries have shifted radically from a paper-based warehouse to a global portal for all of the world’s knowledge. Almost all of us have gone paperless for many of our activities, and even the most tech-resistant Luddite has had to admire the liberating features of the iPad. But we still have a long way to go towards creating a coherent unifying digital plan. At the risk of putting too much on the record, I am tempted to say I am on it.
Speaking of digitization and the poor and besieged Library, man, what a little s***storm that was last week. People—get a grip! The whole (melo)drama was an object lesson in media distortion and overreaction. A reporter files a half-baked and misleading story with the CBC about Memorial cancelling journals. She gets the key facts wrong or leaves them out, and sends the university community, or some parts of it, into a spiral of hysterics. Before you could say “journal entry” social media was blazing with invective and denunciation—all aimed vaguely at the Powers That Be for having the gall and/or audacity of depriving scholars of precious repositories of knowledge.
As if. It’s almost amusing—if it weren’t so exhausting—to see the indignation flame up in 140 characters or less in the course of about 18 hours. The Library, which subscribes to some 80,000 journals, has been conducting a survey for months now aimed at assessing usage. Many of those 80,000 come to us in bundles, just like our cable TV packages, with significant journals mixed in with lesser knowns or mediocre ones. You want The Movie Network? You have to get it with the Golf and Home and Garden channels. The Library has been trying to determine which of those bundles need to be broken up, so that only the most valuable journals can be purchased on their own. This is not only good practice but it is absolutely critical now that the foreign exchange rate has severely compromised our purchasing power. The Canadian dollar is so low that libraries all over the country are facing a crisis of capacity. Our own Library managers have shrewdly foreseen this trend, and managed to keep us pretty whole—until now. Moreover, in the last big budget exercise we all suffered through in the spring, the Library wasn’t touched. Indeed, investment has been steady and healthy, and the Library has actually grown significantly over the last few years. But there’s a limit and the exchange rate is challenging it. Things are getting critical and decisions need to be made. Look, the Library is also a place of pride at Memorial, well serving the academic mission of the university and offering itself as a model of innovation and efficiency. To think that we would casually cancel journals on which so many people rely and without adequate consultation is just, well, foolish.
It’s especially disappointing to see just how quickly so many otherwise smart people can get on a runaway bandwagon. Check the facts and don’t rush to judgement or incrimination before you know what you’re talking about. Isn’t that what we teach our students? My heart sank when I saw that yet another negative story about Memorial appeared on the Academica list last week, largely because of the social media frenzy driven by professors. Who needs that? Especially if it’s all based on false information.
Puleeze, every once and a while, can we talk about all the good stuff we got going on here?