29 April 2011

iStudent - Part 1 of 2: Navigating through university in the digital age

This is the first of a series of blog posts about my thoughts on how the revolutionary way social media alters our daily lives in the 21st century. I might spice up the order with some unrelated topics in between but the working titles are:
  1. iStudent - Part 1 of 2: Navigating through university in the digital age
  2. iStudent - Part 2 of 2: "When *I* was in school...": Reminescing school in the early days of the internet
  3. Expressing yourself through the typed word
  4. iAnthroPod: Of e-storians and v-ethnographers (THIS is gonna be really interesting!)
  5. The digital revolution: How social media impact on politics and popular culture

Studying has incredibly changed in such a short time. Whoever has been in the SOAS library during exam period will have seen the study spaces packed with students consuming their e-journals, browsing e-bibliographies or organising their material on Papers (unfortunately, for Apple only) on their iBooks while listening to their iPod (or the other way around). There is usually not a single student to be found without a computer and/or a smartphone close-by. The sight is stunning and worrying too, for I know all to well the immediate exclusion and apocalyptic consequences of what happens when technology suddenly fails you. This is why I suggested the School adopt my innovative idea of emergency laptops: A pool of laptops that are school property and that you as student can sign out after presenting your broken laptop, under guarantee that you will return it in the same condition or risk having your diploma/degree progression/exam results retained until you have paid up for it (which is what they do for unpaid library fines anyway). But let me start from the beginning.




Universities, just like companies, are under pressure to keep up with the demands of a constantly technological advancements but also use them to improve their competitiveness.
Apple collaborates with universities world-wide in an offensive to create a new generation of non-Windows users. In the UK, students get a 10-30% discount on laptops and iPods and in the US, more and more IT labs are 100% Apple which makes it also easier for the increasing number of students who are already Apple users. In a radical trial, the University of Notre Dame is starting an entirely paper-less class by handing out (loaned) iPads to the students attending it.


Despite the questionable commercialisation of education, a real gem are high school musical-based video productions that advertise their respective feautures. Yale was the first one to launch it and one or two unis followed suit. The video quickly went viral on the web. It's a hilarious ad which is so incredibly well done that you cannot help but be entertained whether or not you find the idea ridiculous! What a way for universities to stay competitive in a higher education 'market' where (changes in) reputation spreads fast through the internet.



Once you decided, after much comparison through googling, which universities you want to apply for, the technological challenge continues: Many universities do not post information material anymore (some do on request though and charge you for P&P) but instead publish everything on their website. Also, admission departments almost warningly tell applicants to follow deadlines, updates or news on their admissions blog or on Twitter, and only (dare) contact them if they 'have to' as particularly popular universities would have high(er) volumes of emails otherwise. The next step is the actual application form which is either an embedded form in your online account or a fillable PDF that must be filled out all in one session as your changes are otherwise not saved (hosting is expensive and surely there are also many applicants who change their minds for whatever reason). You have to attach any (scanned) supporting documentation but I think the school directly gets in touch with any previous institutions/employers about grades or references (you give them permission to do so by electronically signing the form). While this is an extreme example, some universities really only accept online applications.

From the first day at university, you spend the first week or so familiarising yourself not only with the university's physical but also with its virtual environment. At enrolment, you are given a CD-ROM with the School's regulations and the authentication certificate to get WiFi access on campus. Someone at SOAS suggested that it might be useful to add a downloadable app/podcast with instructions how to walk from Russell Square campus to Vernon Square campus with adjacent halls of residence, and vice versa (it is a 20min walk most freshers get lost on at the beginning). 

All students at SOAS automatically get a google account with gmail and personalised dashboard (which I hardly use anymore after they removed the default sticky note app due to IT security reasons). You can do project work online by use of GoogleDocuments you can share with selected users (I never heard of anyone using it but I assume economics/business students do that). Technically, I can chat or even v-chat with my tutors if I have a question. The Google account is standard for many universities in the UK and US and is really useful for filtering and organising large amounts of data. Every day, I get about 10-20 emails from departments/newsletters I subscribed to/general announcements, informing me about anything from reported broken toilets,  start/completion of any refurbishment around the college buildings (that might affect noise levels near teaching rooms or the library), careers updates, public lectures, debates, concerts or the soas e-news (a relatively new electronic interactive newsletter which I assume was created to further develop the school's vibrant community by aiming to eliminate the barriers between students, academics and less known departments that keep the place running).

Podcasts are another popular way of sharing guest lectures, debates, research with the public. The ODI occasionally even does vodcasts of their highly popular panel discussions, well-attended by students, aid practitioners, campaigners, government workers.

MIT students download their lecture podcasts from iTunes or the MIT website (under  OpenCourseWare, there are heaps of AV course materials publicly accessible and even translated into several languages) and obviously use and develop a variety of course-related apps.


At SOAS I emailed a professor about a reading list (as I did not have access to BLE at the time) with a note that I would like to make a list with classmarks and was equally creeped out and immensely impressed when she emailed me a reading list version with hyperlinks to the library catalogue entry or online document! She also did the same with her power point slides and embedded links to videoclips online to show during the lecture. Another professor who was absent for half the term (a court case in India), recorded his lectures as high-res videos and posted them on the online platform from India. We did have a human tutor for that module but since I found the subject a quite vast theoretical field that was not narrowed down in scope for the class and the structure of the course was so chaotic and the online platform completely disorganised, I did not have a positive experience with that class at all and dropped out after the first few weeks – probably the best thing that happened to me because I got to join a really interesting class about a non-Southeast Asian region that I would otherwise never have chosen!


Most if not all teaching rooms at SOAS have been upgraded to include AV equipment including power point projectors. It is only a matter of a few years until universities around the world will upgrade to touch tables, like featured in CSI NY, wherefrom they can 'flick' any slides etc to their students' tablet PCs (which by then might have largely replaced 'conventional' note-taking equipment like paper).

In the classroom, students take notes with their netbooks or macbooks or (still) plain paper. The student union shop doesn't sell as much college pads anymore as it used to but sells USB sticks, skype-compatible headsets, disks, mice, cables and even laptop wipes. At the Vienna University of  Economics and Business (Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien) and in many US universities, new students are given chip cards with campus credits which you can use in the stationery shop, cafe, printing room etc.

As more and more companies/institutions/organisations etc realise that website appearance is a crucial factor of identity and representation, universities are overhauling their websites, too. SOAS for example changed from its outdated previous layout and design to the vibrant and colourful current design about two years ago, reflecting the School's unique character and just a month or so ago, the Refugee Studies Centre went online with their new website which admittedly, is much better than the past but still could use some improvement in usability and functionality (it is a small centre within Oxford University but it IS the leading one of its kind world-wide).

SOAS News: Support for Those Affected by the Japan Earthquake: The School has joined the Japan Earthquake Relief... http://bit.ly/dUY8qI
less than a minute ago via twitterfeed Favorite Retweet Reply

Modern libraries now have blogs (such as the SOAS Southeast Asian and Pacific Studies library blog) and tweet (the SOAS library) any updates about changes in opening hours, new additions to online and print collections, e-libraries and actively encourage you to use GoogleBooks. There are links to all libraries and union catalogues. When there is a book or a DVD (after all, culture is also represented in movies and even if still small, SOAS has probably the most intercultural collection of foreign films from Africa to India and Asia) that I want to recommend, I send an email to the responsible librarian and usually, they immediately hit the internet and order a copy (they are amazing).

When I first arrived in Oxford and used the RSC library (facebook)for the first time, I already knew where everything was as I had downloaded their walkthrough podcast. They also lend USB sticks for free for use within the library or sell them and the copiers scan to and print directly from USB without need to log into a computer (wicked!). I also heard that at the RSC, students also write their social science exams on a PC with access to the internet (I have been told though that you barely have time to use it as you are so focused on typing as much as you can, especially if it is a law exam). At UCL and to an extent, SOAS, essays are submitted via an online learning platform and are automatically checked by Turnitin, a software that detects plagiarism.

When you enter the LSE library, you immediately see a flat screen (there is also a web feed) that tells you how many of the hundreds of work stations are free and how many occupied, just as if they were parking space (and in a way, they are). It like many other libraries now, also has animated library announcements in a screen saver loop that you can absorb when you are queueing at the help desk for instance.

Libraries/IT departments from larger universities also do IT trainings for staff and students who sign up, in all kinds of things, from SPSS (usually introductory workshops open to anyone, the real deal workshop from the software company or accredited institutions costs AT LEAST 300 GBP), using Skype for telephoning abroad (academia IS an international field after all), and even video editing, publishing on- and offlline and documentary film-making.

There also is software for visually-impaired students and for those with learning difficulties. Language students can benefit from access to foreign TV channels (via IPTV) and their own selection of language learning software.

Once you reach the end of your formative years, you can make an online entry into your graduation yearbook on the website of a printing/publishing company. Graduations are now streamed live which is great, given limited seating. After your big day, you stay in touch with people you met at university through Facebook (obviously) or increasingly, LinkedIn. Alumni departments actively engage in expanding alumni networks online, organise events and SOAS for example, has regional sub-groups on LinkedIn so you can meet new and old friends/contacts who are in your area, which is great, given that many SOAS students venture into the WIIIDE, wide world! In Canada and the US, grad students are actively encouraged by careers departments to create a LinkedIn identity and although some universities still give/sell their students some 200 business cards at the beginning of the year (that they are supposed to get rid off as quickly as they can), some quering on LinkedIn shows that they are doing just that - online. I guess contacts have become the currency of the digitalised world where in addition to symbolic capital and human capital you now need to keep up with electronic capital as well. This might generally be even more so for business and finance students than for students of humanities and social sciences.



Generally, I find that internet technology, including the sharing of media content, has enabled scholarship to be more inter-related between and across disciplines and has allowed jumps in academic thinking. It has also made it possible for students to study better and faster, increasing their potential to contribute in an increasinly digitalised working world. As empowering as internet technology can be, however, lack of access to it also creates additional hurdles for students from less fortunate backgrounds and I am going to talk about that in one of my upcoming posts.

2 courageous comments!:

Aike said...

I find these developments absolutely fascinating - but equally alienating and frightening. Your statement that 'internet technology (...) has enabled scholarship to be more inter-related between and across disciplines and has allowed jumps in academic thinking' is interesting, although I am not sure if I agree completely. As I recently wrote on my weblog (http://aikerots.blogspot.com/2011/04/contemporary-conditions-loss-of-agency.html), I am not opposed to all new communication technology and digitalisation per se, but I am much less optimistic than you with regard to these developments as I consider them to be a significant new step in the outsourcing of agency. As I argued, we have become completely dependent on technology that we don't control, as we don't understand how it works. What if this wonderful university network is attacked by a powerful virus or a group of hackers with great expertise? What if suddenly digital data - student essays, marks, personal data - get stolen or disappear? We have become completely dependent on the expertise and goodwill of a few ICT nerds.

And what about the physicality of the studying experience - of reading, writing, underlining? Knowledge quickly gets disembodied as paper books give way to virtual ones... Not to mention long-distance learning - the virtual classroom. I remain skeptical!

Heidi said...

Aike, thank you for your very thoughtful contribution!

What I meant by 'jumps in academic thinking' was the reduced time lag between publishing of a theory and receiving responses (allowing for theories and issues to gain momentum) and the ease with which can delve into possible related topics/fields/issues one can critically examine the theories' relationship with and their impact on them. In other words, it aids lateral and global thinking (in both senses of the term). I guess it is a kind of 'ambient academic awareness'.

Also, you do not need physical access to the tomes of one or several journal(s) anymore or sift manually through all of their combined hundreds of thousands of pages to see what might be relevant to your study. Instead, with search engines and bibliographies one is able to do that much faster and find stuff that one would not have otherwise.

Besides, the digitalisation of academic articles allows for a better vantagepoint wherefrom to analyse the discourse and textual representations itself. For example, I was recently looking into whether or not the the term(ing) and idea of Southeast Asia, as a region with distinct characteristics that distinguishes it from its neighbours, is a construct. Although the theory, published in the early 80s, was likely to have been researched without IT, it might have been picked up earlier (world politics aside) and evolved faster with them.

On another note, while English is the lingua franca of academia, it is also possible to search across languages without having to leave the room - requiring less research funding and actually gaining agency by not having to rely on the externalities that stops most researchers from publishing new insights before they even can get started (presuming to have access to all or most records that could possibly be digitised). It allows us to make knowledge accessible to the general public but sadly, simultaneously creates new hierarchies of exclusion, depending on technological knowledge and access to technology.

Of course you are right when you say that there are many worrying issues that have yet to be addressed. I guess it is the perennial problem of technological advancement, by nature, evolving just too fast and implications often only becoming discernable later. I shiver at the thought of university IT going on strike.

Actually, I was going to blog a bit later about learning methods and modern technology and separately, about literature and new media. Stay tuned!