Survey Examines British Academics' Use of Digital Tools in Research and Teaching

May 16, 2013

British scholars continue to rely largely on traditional channels of communication, including peer-reviewed journals and monographs, despite a growing emphasis on the use of social media and blogs for obtaining or disseminating scholarly information. They also still look primarily to their institutional libraries to provide them with the articles and books they use for research and teaching, even if they do not necessarily spend time in the physical buildings where the resources are housed.

Those are among the findings of a new survey of almost 3,500 British academics published on Thursday. The survey, the first of its kind in Britain, was conducted by Ithaka S+R, the consulting-and-research arm of the nonprofit Ithaka group, which works to help the academic community make better use of digital technologies. It is similar to one Ithaka has conducted in the United States every three years since 2000.

Ithaka collaborated on the poll with Jisc, a British nonprofit group that supports the use of digital tools in higher education, and Research Libraries UK, an association of 33 libraries in Britain and Ireland.

The survey's findings reflect the traditional conservatism of much of academe, despite the effects of rapid technological change on research, dissemination, and teaching, said David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK. While a lot of attention is paid to social-media tools, like Twitter, and they have occasionally raised the readership of scholarly work, few academics are using them to regularly distribute or look for papers, said Mr. Prosser.

The survey was conducted last year and comes at a time when the open-access movement is rapidly gaining ground in Britain, with the government backing plans to require all publicly financed research to be made free beginning next year. The survey found that researchers seeking a specific publication often give up and turn to another source if they are unable to find what they are looking for in their library or free online.

"It looks like this could represent a huge opportunity cost, with people missing out on results, insights, and inspirations because they don't have access to the resources," said Mr. Prosser. He welcomed the push toward greater open access but said the survey results suggest that the proposed timeline, which envisions a five-year transition period until all publicly financed research is fully available, will not solve the problem. "This gives ammunition to the suggestion that we should be moving more quickly."

'Enormous Disciplinary Differences'

Although the focus of the survey was primarily on research practices, it also looked at how technology is being used in teaching. The survey results revealed "enormous disciplinary differences in what it means to teach," said Roger C. Schonfeld, one of the authors of a report on the survey. Science instructors rely much more heavily on experiments or experiential learning than those in the social sciences or the arts and humanities, for example, but those in the arts and humanities lead in the use of presentations or multimedia projects.

More than a third of those surveyed reported that they make use of audio or video recordings of lectures, but a much smaller percentage said that they do so in order to reserve class time for group discussions or more hands-on teaching, a practice known as "flipping the classroom." Teaching innovations seem to be left largely to the initiative of individual instructors, with just 15 percent reporting that their institution "recognizes or rewards academic staff for taking the time to integrate new digital technology and pedagogies."

The survey results also revealed distinctions between teaching in institutions that belong to the Research Libraries UK consortium, which includes the libraries of most of Britain's leading research universities, and those that do not. The survey found that instructors at institutions outside the association were more likely to engage in practices like supplementing class time with additional audio or video or asking their students to meet with one another through voice or video chats to collaborate and discuss course materials. The apparent differences in how teaching is being conducted at the two kinds of institutions raise "very interesting questions about whether teaching methods are changing more rapidly in some institutional contexts than others," said Mr. Schonfeld.

Because this is the first time the survey has been conducted, the authors of the report emphasized that it represents only a snapshot of British academic practices. They hope to repeat the poll in the future to provide a better glimpse at trends over time. Authors of the report resisted making comparisons between the British and the American surveys, saying the one in Britain included a broader range of academic disciplines. They plan to provide an analysis of the two surveys at a later date.