Digital Academia - a fairer more equal space?
Updated: Jun 22, 2019
The world of academia is quickly changing. There is a rising consciousness among academics that the pressures to travel are damaging for the environment but also for academics themselves. Digitalising academic platforms for engagement and communicating research could offer a solution. But, it may come with its own problems.
Academics travel a lot. Recently, I read Race MoChridhe's blog responding to the issue of academics flying to conferences to talk about the damaging impact of climate change. He points out it is not only bad for the environment but also diversity and equity - (not to mention it takes a huge amount out of research budgets that could be spent elsewhere). You don't have to scratch the surface too far to see plenty of arguments against the idea of academics travelling for conferences. There are other costs than financial. And, these costs are disproportionately on early career researchers, women and parents. It is worse for those who suffer from mental health issues or chronic sickness.
In my PhD, I believe I took 15 or more trips - for training, conferences and fieldwork. I got to the point where airport staff started to recognise me and I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of getting on another flight. Attending training for my PhD was compulsory, as well as the fieldwork. The conferences you can argue are not, but if you don't present your research then you potentially miss out on an opportunity to collaborate on a paper, take part in a research working group or a future job. To find work in academia, you must meet the demands that you present and publish. Without both, you would be looking at fewer future academic opportunities or hope of promotion. However, travelling to attend training and give presentations leaves us with so much less time to publish (or work on your thesis if you are a doctoral candidate).
There are other costs to all this travelling. As I said, my PhD was a European Doctorate that required me to travel quite a bit. That travel over time went from being exciting to having a massive cost on my personal finance, social networks and my well-being. I can see it would be even harder for academics with children, but in any case, your family life is disrupted. And life doesn't stop, families still require attention, particularly with ageing parents who need support. Honestly, in all my travel, I only had time to do 2 trips back home to see my own family - 2 in 5 years. Like many academics, I live and work in a country that is not my own, which I think is fantastic for research collaboration and innovation. But, it does also mean there is less of a social structure around you, less family and long-term friends for support when times get hard.
Attending conferences and sharing ideas and networks is fantastic for developing collaborations, new research groups and more. I've appreciated and learnt greatly from those experiences. Certainly, there is a value to meeting face to face, which we need to find ways to keep. But, with the mounting stress on academics and reports of worsening mental health in universities, clearly, something needs to change.
There seems there are now also growing actions towards the digital in academia. Digital platforms offer new modalities for academics to engage and communicate research. There are increasing numbers of virtual think tanks, online blended learning platforms, distance courses. We can even do some elements of fieldwork online and get interviews via Skype. During my PhD, I took part in a Blended Learning Committee (with the idea being to transfer our Core Curriculum to an online platform) and a Virtual Conference with the UNHCR. In one of the events I organised, I managed to get video recordings of the keynote speakers - the speakers didn't have the visas to travel being refugees or asylum seekers. We organised the conferences with them at a distance and had the Roundtable participants respond to their thoughts and questions.
Digitalising academia can allow for inclusion for those who can't travel.
This should be the answer right?
We create online training platforms, attend virtual conferences and slowly cut down the travel allowing greater opportunity for those under strain or wouldn't normally be able to participate.
Universities can invest further in the digital platforms and training in staff and doctoral candidates to make more innovative use of online opportunities. It could be easier for early career researchers to train, share research and communicate their research more broadly. In this digital age, there are certainly so many more ways to function as an academic.
Yet, change is slow and the full potential of digital modalities have not been realised. On the basic level, it still feels like conference organisers who offer at least the option of digital presentations are in the minority. It seems, for now, there will be little change to the travelling demands academia places on its scholars. But, the question I really want to ask is;
Would digitalising academia make it fairer?
It is first important to realise, that digitalising academic interaction does not denote that all interaction occurs digitally. Rather, that the digital dimensions of engagement are more central to human interaction, but does not suggest that it is all-encompassing. The digital interactions in academia, the same as other spheres of social life, must co-exist with different types of media in an evolving environment. Digital academic participation eases some of the environmental, financial and diversity concerns, but unless handled carefully it cannot be a magical fix. We would need to maintain the dynamic energy from face to face meetings and make sure that opportunities that arise networking aren't lost. Or that those networking opportunities don't only happen for those who can afford to travel, are mentally and physically healthy or are without the family/childcare responsibilities.
Nevertheless, even if we moved academic engagement and research communication might not be entirely free from issues. The ability to access digital platforms depends on digital awareness, digital literacy and capacity to use new technologies. These capacities are lacking with older academics or those not experienced nor trained in ICT, whose expertise is outside the digital realm. Even those who some have capacity are not guaranteed a fair academic digital representation and may find themselves silenced, sidelined for bigger names or find their work devalued by those who feel the digital space allows them greater licence to be more critical. There is a simultaneous process of allowing voice and silencing that establishes a communicative order in the real world, but it also exists on digital spaces. Digital participation exists within a framework of hierarchies just as real world participation does. We may attempt to utilise digital platform to create more inclusive spaces for dialogue within academia only to be faced with new forms of discrimination and inequalities.
Yet, I can see a growing movement towards digitalising academia and probably rightly so. I just hope in this more virtual world that this will, in fact, allow for greater equity and diversity, though quietly I fear it too may come with its own costs and issues.