Sneak peek at the digital lives of the students and faculty at Michigan State University

Sneak peek at the digital lives of the students and faculty at Michigan State University

Sneak peek at the digital lives of the students and faculty at Michigan State University

In its 14th annual report on state-driven digital collections in high schools and colleges, the Center for Digital Scholarship has identified over 125,000 digital assets for public and private use by students, faculty, and researchers in more than 2,000 schools.

Navigating the ‘Wild West’ of Digital Collections in Schools

It’s a matter of logging on, surfing through folders, or using a search engine to fill out a brief query. Often, schools offer little guidance on which digital files to access or which ones to avoid, and some can be far more contentious. How does a parent feel about a term paper being stored on an FTP server that others can access? What rights should an instructor have when it comes to using what online resources for research?

“A good way to get an outline of the digital assets is to use Google Scholar,” notes Lauren Glendening, a University of Nevada-Reno software developer who supports the center’s mission of covering the “ascending terrain” of digital collections. “You’ll see that the vast majority of these assets are in the public domain, and that the vast majority are available to all of us.”

The numbers from 2015 that were reported on the Digital Scholars report cover institutions that were approved as Digital Collections Recognition Centers, by the National Science Foundation. Those institutions apply for full NSF funding. “When you say a publicly funded university, it has to be eligible to apply for Digital Collections Recognition,” says Glendening. These institutions either have an approved Digital Collections Center or have a Digital Collections Management Policy that ensures how the digital assets in their digital collections will be used. “These are institutions that want to be really good stewards of collections that are related to their curriculum.”

Careful before, and after

But there are numerous, and sometimes controversial, choices to be made when considering the possibilities that digital collections may open up. “Students and instructors are enthusiastic about digital resources, but they also should keep in mind that there are some of these collections that are not appropriate for student use,” notes Glendening.

When evaluating digital collections, Glendening urges those overseeing digital collections at schools to make it clear to students and instructors who they should consult before moving digital materials into the classroom.

One of the issues to consider is whether digital collections represent their full potential. When you see how much digital content is public domain and subject to searchability, it’s easy to forget that it is the faculty who curate this content. Often these resources are very carefully chosen. “A particular collection will have a lot of audio files, but it will be from someone you’ve never heard of,” notes Glendening. If you are seeing that for the first time, she adds, “you shouldn’t assume that everything in that collection is going to be appropriate.”

It is also important to consider how digital collections impact academic instruction. “A lot of it depends on what the school environment is like,” says Glendening. Some schools will publish a lot of material via an academic journal that needs a searchable index in order to be searched and cited in the journal. “Other schools may not have these high amounts of digital media,” she notes.

There are no easy answers to the thorny and multilayered problems of managing digital collections that belong to educational institutions. “[Digital Collections Recognition Centers] represent a big step forward in taking digital collections out of the black box they were in when they were created,” notes Glendening. “We’re trying to help educators recognize the fact that some of these collections are available for research and evaluation in a public context.”

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