Now reading: Splashes & Ripples- Synthesising the Evidence on the Impacts of Digital Resources, by Dr Eric T Meyer

“Digitised materials representing the world’s cultural heritage are part of a growing trend towards a world in which knowledge is digitally stored, available on demand, and constantly growing. As the world becomes digital and the globally connected “digital brain” holds the shared knowledge of the world, the materials of the past need to be included in order to ensure that our collective memory online encompasses not just the present and the future, but also the past.

This report is an effort to begin to synthesize the evidence available under the JISC digitisation and eContent programmes to better understand the patterns of usage of digitised collections in research and teaching, in the UK and beyond. JISC has invested heavily in eContent and digitisation, funding dozens of projects of varying size since 2004. However, until recently, the value of these efforts has been mostly either taken as given, or asserted via anecdote. By drawing on evidence of the various impacts of twelve digitised resources, we can begin to build a base of evidence that moves beyond anecdotal evidence to a more empirically-based understanding on a variety of impacts that have been measured by qualitative and quantitative methods.

These impacts are both big and small – the splashes and ripples in the title of this report. Some collections have made big splashes, such as The University of Oxford on iTunes U, which sees 1-2 million accesses per day from people interested in hearing lectures delivered by world experts in their fields. Others have generated smaller ripples that are nevertheless important within specialty areas, such as the Siobhan Davies RePlay dance resource, which is one of the few digital collections in the world that allows students of dance to see the whole process of choreographing and creating innovative dance.

The data was collected by eight teams, seven of which were funded in 2010 under JISC Grant Call 7/10: Digitisation programmes: Impact & embedding of digitised resourcesThe eighth team was previously funded in 2009 as the Usage and Impact Study of JISC‐funded Phase 1 Digitisation Projectsand gathered data on five digitisation projects. In addition, the 2009 team created the Toolkit for the Impact of Digitised Scholarly Resources (TIDSR) which documented a variety of methods for measuring impact. The TIDSR resource was used as a methodological reference by the 2010 projects, and the final reports have been included in TIDSR as case studies.

Research excellence is a key measure in the Higher Education sector. Publications, patents, datasets, tools, and resources are all measured, compared, and examined for evidence of research excellence. The twelve resources examined in this report all strive for research excellence, but achieve it in different ways. For instance, British History Online and the Old Bailey Proceedings Online are among the resources mostly heavily cited in academic publications, while Histpop and the Stormont Parliamentary Hansards are allowing for broader use of publications that would otherwise only be available in a limited number of libraries and archives.

Teaching and learning excellence are also important cornerstones of effective digital resources. The University of Oxford’s podcasting site which distributes lectures, interviews, discussions, and workshops is an excellent example of the way in which world-class institutions such as Oxford can extend their influence even further by sharing the knowledge and teaching skills of their scholars with the rest of the world. Siobhan Davies RePlay appeals to a smaller audience, but is designed to support the national UK Personal Development Planning (PDP) scheme for dance. The scheme allows students to develop portfolios of their dance training and development by using the digital resource to learn how professionals document their professional careers using the same methods asked of the students.

One measure of excellence is the enthusiasm with which users respond to a resource, as demonstrated by the following pair of quotes:

British History Online is my favourite and first source for primary sources in British history. As a student of history, librarian, and writer, I return again and again. Even when I’m not researching, I often visit BHO for the sheer fun of what I might learn and discover. The site is easy to navigate, convenient, and its offerings thorough and accessible. Where else online can I find such a bounty of Britain’s heritage? It is a generous endeavour and an absolute goldmine. (Blaney & Webster, 2010, p. 7)

I’m not joking but [the University of Oxford podcast site] has become my favourite site in ten seconds flat – can’t stop downloading! Where has this been all my life?????? This is ridiculous! (Wilson, Marshall, & Geng, 2010, p. 7)

Many other examples of impacts on research, teaching, and learning are available in the full text of the report. The evidence ranges from broad-based quantitative measures (number of visitors, number of links to the resource, frequency of being mentioned in the mainstream and non-traditional media, etc.) to more richly-detailed qualitative measures (gathered via focus groups, interviews, user feedback, etc.). No single measure reflects “the impact” of a digital resource; instead the combination of empirical evidence can be used to provide a broader idea of the various types of impacts these resources are having as a collection of collections.

At the end of the report, 15 recommendations for digital resource providers are presented, which were drawn from the evidence presented in the report. In addition, 10 additional recommendations for improving measurement and sustainability are offered. These 25 recommendations suggest ways to potentially increase the size of the splashes emanating from a digital resource, and to turn some ripples into splashes.

For Digital Resource Providers

1. Plan ahead to measure impact.

2.Use the media to your advantage.

3. The media and the public are influenced by numbers and metrics.

4. Make your resource easy to find.

5. Give your resource an unambiguous name and acronym/initials.

6. Create quick wins.

7. Leverage your wins.

8. Make resources easy to navigate without sacrificing functionality.

9. Adopt Cool URIs (i.e., human-readable web addresses).

10. Provide automatic citations that are easy to copy or download.

11. Provide the ability to export citations.

12. Create training materials using examples from real research.

13. Make teaching materials available.

14. Consider allowing users to comment on or modify items (with care).

15. APIs are the future.

For Improved Measurement

16. Remember in advance that you will want to contact your users.

17. Develop webometric tools that scale for larger collections.

18. Develop analytic tools that scale for larger collections.

19. Develop methods to better accommodate collections that are distributed via multiple channels.

20. Develop strategies for archiving log file data and analytics.

21. Centralize hosting.

22. Develop standardized measures.

For Future Sustainability

23. Innovative revenue models should be explored.

24. Develop Cool URI standards.

25. Maintain active sites to attract users in the long term.

These recommendations are just one step along the road toward increasing the impact of the digitised collections that are part of Britain’s rich cultural heritage. As Tanner and Deegan (2011) argue in their recent evaluation of the broad social benefits of digitisation, the challenges for digital resources are even greater in the future. They describe a utopian view of the future world, in which connected citizens engage with digital content via ubiquitous devices that allow them to learn about Britain’s heritage as they move through the places where history occurred. These citizens of Digital Britain are engaged with educational, entertaining, and enlightening content, built on a rich and deep set of digitised content.

To achieve such an enlightened digital future will not be easy – it will take imagination, work, cooperation, funding, and dedication. Done correctly, however, the citizens of the future will thank us, as the splashes and ripples from today propagate into the future to shape and reshape the boundaries of knowledge. For, as Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” (1995).”

The full report can be found here


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