Some Reflections on COVID-19 and the Digitization of Research and Teaching

I have found in my short career as an academic that in spite of its growing popularity there is a certain stigma that surrounds the Digital Humanities and the more general use of digital tools in both research and education. Perhaps readers of the Digital Orientalist, engaged as they are in the Digital Humanities or at the very least acting as interested onlookers, will think this assessment incorrect, and perhaps it is, but in my experience there is a vanguard of usually senior researchers who underestimate the value or even decry the validity of digitally-oriented research and education.

Of course, skepticism is not completely uncalled for, the digital world evolves at such a pace that advancements made mere years ago no longer hold much influence; software, hardware, programming languages, file formats, the capabilities of technology etc. change rapidly. Imagine, for instance, the digitally engaged researchers of the 1990s; they likely saved their files on floppy disks, recorded audio-visual data onto VHS and tapes, and used other now completely outdated tools, devices, and software. In the present, we must face a similar reality with our work; perhaps the skills we have acquired or are acquiring will not be useful in the next decade, perhaps certain file formats will be unreadable in twenty years time, perhaps the software we develop will be of little use to the scholars of tomorrow. As such, the use and creation of paper-based research and educational tools whether they are books, academic papers, worksheets or otherwise remain not only important in academia, but essential.

Macintosh Classic released in 1990 (Image from Wikipedia).

Whilst I needn’t go into minute detail, the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has necessitated the use and indeed highlighted the importance of the digital for both educational and research purposes. Libraries, archives, and museums are temporarily closing and therefore those of us with inadequate collections of physical texts must, in the coming months, increasingly turn to e-books and other digitized materials. A large number of universities will take their teaching completely online during the next semester, and some seminars and other events will also enter the digital realm – for instance, the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at the University of St Andrews of which I am an Associate Researcher has announced that its seminars will continue online. Conferences and other events are also moving online. We are reminded, for instance, of the ongoing importance of platforms such as Twitter on which the the Digital Orientalist held a conference last year. Twitter-based conferences such as DH in the Time of Virus are already being organized. In my own field, the cancelling of the Association for Asian Studies’ Annual Conference has led some, such as Dr. Paula R. Curtis to share their materials intended for the conference (and in this case a “meeting-in-conjuction”) virtually (see below). Indeed, social media more generally appears to be becoming a key platform upon which academics are interacting with each other (and the public) and sharing resources pertinent to both research and education. In any case, it should be clear that we have all been thrust, whether involved in the Digital Humanities or not, into a situation in which we have little choice other than to adopt digital methods for our teaching and research.

Dr. Paula R. Curtis‘ thread on Digital Humanities Japan intended for the he Association for Asian Studies’ Annual Conference.

From an educational stand point all of this may be quite a welcome change; most of our students already do the majority of their learning online. In the world of research too, most of us, even if we do not engage with “sophisticated” digital tools, already do a large amount of our writing and research from behind a computer screen. Nevertheless, the sudden need to digitize our educational and research methods and practices, raises several concerns and questions. I am lucky to have most of my courses prepared and available through a learning management system, Schoology, and as such the only real digitization my lectures require involves recording and uploading videos to supplement my online materials. Many educationalists may not be so lucky and the digitizing of both their classroom materials and lectures will likely significantly impinge upon the time they can allocate to research, family life, and administrative work.

An image of Schoology‘s interface (Image from Chrome Web Store).

A more pressing concern is accessibility. Digitization is often a double edged-sword providing greater accessibility to resources for some, and more limited accessibility for others. For instance, I have students whose financial situations deprive them of access to a personal computer or certain pieces of software. In a usual semester of teaching, such a situation would be easily resolved through group work, the use of communal computers at the library or on campus, or by providing the scope for students to hand in physical copies of their assignments. However, with social isolation and the closure of communal spaces becoming the temporary norm we must find new ways to deliver both fully digitized courses and include the less financially capable. In the world of research too, despite ever increasing accessibility to digital papers and e-books we often find ourselves trapped behind paywalls, whether we are seeking to read the research of others or indeed publish open access versions of our own work. The spread of COVID-19 makes the issues of accessibility doubly important. Usually we all have choices (which may be influenced by our financial situation) as to whether and to what extent we interact with digital resources and tools. However, the nature of the world’s response to the spread of COVID-19, highly limits our choices and abilities to conduct research and education in non-digital ways, and this has the potentiality to exclude certain students and academics.

We can likely work towards solutions for making our course materials more accessible to our students, for example, by simplifying the tools we use. There are also a number of potential solutions for researchers facing issues with accessing materials. For example, we may find ourselves increasingly tempted to download pirated materials. I would note, however, that before we decide to download such materials that we should consider the potential ethical implications including the damage it may do to our fellow researchers and the publishers on which we rely. A perhaps more beneficial route would be to ask authors (via email or social media) for PDF copies of their work. This may even help us to network with fellow academics and strengthen our community as a whole. Students should also be made aware that we academics are a welcoming bunch and that many of us will happily supply PDF copies of our articles.

Screenshot of popular site for finding pirated academic materials, Library Genesis.

Twitter conferences too, whilst a wonderful avenue for increasing accessibility to academic forums for the general public, independent researchers, researchers with financial limitations or mobility issues, and students, rely on participants having a certain level of capital in order to access a computer and the internet. When coupled with other online materials such as the zine, #PATC3 & Me by Matthew Edwards, that followed the third Public Archaeology Twitter Conference, there is even greater potentiality for increasing access to such conferences, especially for those who do not have access to Twitter. 

Given all this, I believe that the current times offer us both challenges and opportunities in our work as researchers, teachers, and students. All of us are provided with opportunities to adapt our research, teaching, and learning, to the digital age, whilst simultaneously spurring us to search for solutions to issues that are prevalent in our fields such as stigma surrounding digital methods and concerns of accessibility to digitized resources. I hope that forums such as the Digital Orientalist and the plethora of other digital publications that have become active in the past few years will, alongside the voices of individual scholars on social media, help to guide researchers, teachers, and students looking to adopt digital methods and practices for their research, teaching, and learning.

I would like to end by stating that this post is a personal reflection, rather than a statement by the Digital Orientalist. Over the coming weeks, we will try to continue publishing as usual, but please be understanding if the world’s rapidly changing context does not allow us to do so. Stay safe!

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