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The Post-Digital Potential of Man and Machine

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Homepage [From the President]

Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

At the beginning of his article Michael Roy, Dean of Library and Information Services and Chief Information Officer at Middlebury College, states: "Many campuses are witnessing the birth of a new field of inquiry called the digital humanities, which applies computational methods to humanistic inquiry, provides new methods for presenting scholarship online, and encourages novel forms of collaboration." Accordingly, he and other writers in this issue of EDUCAUSE Review explore the extent to which the humanities disciplines, along with other fields of scholarship, are influenced by the human or by the digital. Is this a question of man-versus-machine or man-and-machine? The suggested conclusion is that it is not either/or but both/and. The human and the digital are increasingly inseparable.

As David M. Berry, Co-Director of the Centre for Material Digital Culture at the University of Sussex, reminds us in his article, the distinction between the digital and the non-digital is increasingly blurred in our post-digital world: "This is a world of anticipatory technology and contextual computing that uses smart diffused computational processing to create a fine web of computational resources that are embedded into the material world." Charles J. Henry, President of the Council on Library and Information Resources, agrees: "Information technology is inextricably woven into the fabric of our cultural heritage." Although "the proliferation of digital surrogates for analog resources" and "the flourishing of born-digital resources" constitute the single most important difference in today's academic world, "digitization of itself is but one instance within an array of new tools, delivery mechanisms, and interpretive applications that contribute to a vibrant intellectual milieu."

For example, Berry describes a post-digital way of working that applies "computational principles, processes, and machinery to humanities texts." This is not a case of analog-versus-digital. The digital humanities tries "to take account of the plasticity of digital forms and the way in which they point towards a new way of working with representation and mediation." Likewise, Henry notes that the digital surrogates for medieval manuscripts of the poem Roman de la Rose allow a post-digital inquiry that "affords the scholar and the student new opportunities to test hypotheses, ask questions, and approach the poem with a more encompassing frame of reference."

Digital scholarship is valuable not just because of the process but also because of the products. Roy elaborates: "The products of digital scholarship are often digital works that can be integrated into the classroom experience, offering important access to primary-source materials and, in many cases, providing new tools and analytical forms that can be assigned alongside traditional secondary literature. The discrete, granular nature of this scholarship has affordances for remix and reuse that are not typical of the traditional scholarly output in the humanities."

Remix and reuse are a way to understand technologies as "potentiality," a concept explained by Jim Groom, Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington, and Brian Lamb, Re-Director of Innovation at Thompson Rivers University. Potentiality is "the idea that within the use of every technical tool there is more than just the consciousness of that tool, there is also the possibility to spark something beyond those predefined uses. The only real way to galvanize that potentiality is to provide the conditions of possibility—that is, a toolkit for user innovation." Such a toolkit enables individuals to find novel uses for technologies and to reclaim the innovation that surrounded the web in its early days. The "user-driven revolution" can "reclaim innovation as a positive force as higher education continues to engage with digital and networked technologies."

Alison Byerly, President of Lafayette College, notes that engagement with digital technologies uncovers "a different kind of meaning." She explains: "Technology uncovers patterns or information that would otherwise remain invisible. . . . Technology can help us to generate information we might not otherwise see." Speaking to both technologists and humanists, she says that although we must come to terms with a different way of thinking as a result of technology, "in the end, the act of interpretation is a fully human endeavor."

Challenges remain, of course. Clifford A. Lynch, Executive Director of the Coalition for Networked Information, asks: "How can we curate and manage data now that so much of it is being produced and collected in digital form? How can we ensure that it will be discovered, shared, and reused to advance scholarship? We are struggling through the establishment of institutions, funding models, policies and practices, and even new legal requirements and community norms." Lynch reminds us: "Changes in the practice of scholarship need to go hand-in-hand with changes in the communication and documentation of scholarship."

In spite of the changes and challenges, an infectious enthusiasm surrounds the digital humanities and digital scholarship more broadly. The work illustrates the best of man and machine collaborating to explore, innovate, and celebrate our cultural heritage and future.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 49, no. 3 (May/June 2014)

Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,400 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Dr. Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the Associate Dean of Academic Programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Dr. Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Dr. Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Game Changers.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Dr. Oblinger serves on a variety of boards including the American Council on Education (ACE), and DuraSpace. Previous board and advisory service includes the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project, and the NSF Committee on Cyberinfrastructure. She currently serves as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Dr. Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of eight books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, Learning Spaces, and Game Changers. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds three honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (bachelor's, master's, and PhD) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


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1 Comment

On analog and digital.

Communication theorist Anthony Wilden might respond to the idea of a new field called Digital Humanities as incognizant of centuries of the "digitalization" of human expression. By digitalization, he means the process of quantifying analog information into symbolic, coded media - be they in a phonetic alphabet, numerals, ordinals, printed text, etc.

What is lost in the semantics of analog media are gained, in the digitizing process, by the ability to order, measure, differentiate, compute, transfer, etc. The implications of this idea describe the roots of the cognitive leap needed to comprehend how digital manipulation punctuates, in a new way, how content is to be taken as, such as Roman law distributed in written form as a proxy for Caesar himself (an extraordinary concept at the time).

I get it that what is meant in the above review refers to a modern intepretation of "digital" in opposition to traditional printed media. Still, the historical precedent set by alphabetizing language, forming grammar, and printing with the intent to disseminate suggests that the modern version of Digital Humanities is more about comprehending data about data than it is about the tools we happen to be using. In other words, it is more challenging to comprehend the meaning of computation-based humanities than it is about the fact that the content happens to be in digital form - which I believe is consistent with Byerly's contention. The content has always been digital.

OK - splitting hairs! Still, I invite readers to review Wilden's essay in his 1972 book "System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange", chapter 7: "Analog and Digital Communication: On Negation, Signification, and Meaning". 

Posted by: SteveCovello on May 21, 2014


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