If you build it, will they come?

In the past decade, digital resources for undergraduate humanities
and social science faculty have swelled from a small trickle to a
mighty torrent. Today’s instructor looking to enrich the classroom
experience has an overabundance of online libraries, image archives,
media Web sites, video collections, and even personal research to
choose from. But as a two-year study being conducted at UC Berkeley’s
Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) reveals, just because
such learning assets are out there doesn’t mean everybody is taking
advantage of them.

can have all this great stuff up there on the Web, but in many cases
it’s not easy for a good faculty member to integrate the available
materials into his or her style of teaching,” says Diane Harley, the
study’s principal investigator and a senior researcher at CSHE.

In the past, one might have assumed that this is because
humanities and social science professors are a bunch of technophobes.
However, preliminary data from CSHE’s Digital Resource Study paint a
different picture. Among the top-cited obstacles to using digital
resources was inadequate classroom equipment. As one survey respondent
put it: “I hate the tension that equipment introduces into the
classroom, the fear of breakdown, the suspense, the frequent waste of
time.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Sponsored by CITRIS as well as the Andrew W. Mellon
Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the
California Digital Library, the Digital Resource Study aims to provide
a scan of which digital resources are used by undergraduate instructors
in humanities and social sciences, how they are being used, and why (or
why not). In addition to faculty focus groups, the study is analyzing
more than 1200 responses to a survey of faculty from the University of
California, community colleges, private liberal arts colleges across
California, and humanities on-line discussion groups.

hope is that this study, due out this fall, will improve both the
digital resources themselves and instructors’ ability to take advantage
of them.

“A lot of people who design technologies and
systems tend to say: ‘I’ve got this great idea and we’re going to put
it out there. Build it and they will come,’” she says.

developers and funders of these projects are given a more accurate
picture of how users actually behave in complex research and teaching
environments, she believes they can make better decisions about what
materials to provide and how best to make them useable and useful.
Colleges and universities, in the meantime, can make smarter
investments in equipment, resources, and technological infrastructure
at universities.

Why the emphasis on social sciences
and humanities? “For one,” says Harley, “compared to the sciences and
engineering, they tend to be neglected by funders and developers.”
Humanities and social sciences professors are also a particularly tough
crowd to provide content to, making them ripe for study. While every
introductory biology course will cover cell structure and DNA, no two
instructors are going to teach American history in exactly the same
way. “They would use very different kinds of supporting materials,
primary sources,” says Harley. So perhaps it’s no surprise to learn
that among those who employ digital resources in the classroom, the
variety of what is used, in the words of CSHE research associate
Jonathan Henke, is “staggering.”

But as early analysis
of the study data shows, the biggest barriers to instructors using
digital resources come from lack of time, equipment, and technical
support, not any shortage of great materials. Faculty also said that
technology often can’t improve on tried and true teaching methods.
Especially when it comes to equipment there is huge variation among
institutions, even among CITRIS campuses. For instance, 66 per cent of
survey respondents from UC Berkeley said they don’t have reliable
access to physical equipment in their classrooms, whereas at UC Davis
only 26 percent said this was a problem.

Harley herself
is no stranger to these difficulties. Before launching her survey, she
struggled to find available server space. “That’s not something that’s
always easy for social scientists and humanists to find on the UC
Berkeley campus,” she says. Ultimately, CITRIS was able to provide not
only server space and a platform for their custom online survey and
analytical back-end, but technical support to ensure privacy protection
of their respondents.

Harley believes that none of these
obstacles is insurmountable. "Available digital resources have the
potential to be a wonderful asset to many more teachers and students.
But that won’t happen until the relationship between the social and the
technical barriers to ease of use is addressed. Our research is focused
on understanding that relationship,” she says.


For more information:

The Digital Resource Study

CSHE Publishes Preliminary Results of Digital Resources Study UC Berkeley Teaching, Learning, and Technology Center, November 2004

Center for Studies in Higher Education

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

California Digital Library