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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 01, 2003

This Journal Column published as BBC Learning in Technology Source Sept 01, 2003. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

In recent years much has been written about the application of contemporary Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to learning and teaching, but ultimately learning and teaching, at least in Higher Education, rests on scholarship and much less has been written on the implications of the new technologies for conduct of scholarly discourse. Over the last few years I have been reflecting on the implications of the new information infrastructure of higher education for the conduct of scholarly discourse. Specifically, I have been investigating the following lines argument:

  1. that multimedia computing potentially provides scholarly discourse with great opportunities, but also problematizes that discourse (Ingraham, 2000);
  2. that despite the opportunities offered by multimedia, large bodies of continuous text remain and are likely to remain the primary medium from the dissemination of scholarship (Ingraham & Bradburn, 2003); and
  3. most recently, that with advent of portable, ubiquitous computing the 'electronic book' is likely to become the primary medium not only for the dissemination text-mediated scholarly discourse (Ingraham & Bradburn, 2003a), but also a fundamental tool for disseminating educational multimedia.

The purpose of this short essay is to draw the stages of this argument together and complete the link between stage 3 and stage 1. If the academic community is to fully engage with multimedia scholarship a bridge will need to be formed that first moves the text orientation of scholarly discourse away from paper to electronic mediation. As that shift takes place it will become increasingly possible to genuinely exploit the potential of multimedia within scholarly discourse; but in so doing, it also becomes necessary to address the problems implicit therein.

From paper to electronically mediated scholarship

Underlying this argument is the hypothesis that PCs, the Internet, and broadcast television as we currently understand them will all disappear in the next 10 years and be replaced with flat-screen, interactive, voice-controlled, media access and display systems capable of accessing any or all media. These will be of variable sizes depending on their locus (e.g. domestic or office) and portability (Teachlearn, 2002).

In the immediately foreseeable future the desktop PC is likely to literally disappear. Even where it persists for office functions (in both business and domestic environments), it will probably consist of no more than a mouse, flat screen and keyboard to which a palm top computer can be connected. The Internet won't go away, but the desktop PC will cease to be the primary interface with it. Palmtop computers/mobile phones and televisions will. Similarly, televisions won't disappear, but it seems likely that they will become wall-mounted, flat screen devices and television programming will become increasingly interactive. Video on demand will become readily available and, at least domestically, these devices will be the primary interface with a more media rich Internet.

Even more importantly for academic discourse, this is also likely to prove true for paper-based media. Books (for which read printed material in general) became the staple medium of academic discourse for many reasons, but perhaps most notably, for their ease of production/replication, their portability, and their ease of use. Electronic media can now also offer all of these advantages. Of course, books won't disappear, but it is reasonable to suppose that the portable paper medium through which they are currently disseminated will be replaced by the even more flexible and portable electronic media.

This is already evident for many forms of popular print. Why produce/buy tons of newsprint or pulp fiction, when you can download comfortably readable electronic versions of the same? Most major newspapers now have online services and some, like, allow users to determine the contents of their news 'paper' and then display it on a handheld or other device. Similarly, academic discourse is increasingly being disseminated via the Internet and it is even arguable that paper-mediated publication actually interferes with dissemination of scholarship (Harnad, 2002). [N.B. A very interesting series of articles on the future of text in a digital world can be found at the Text-e and Interdisciplines websites.]

However, ease of a production/replication is not in itself enough to transform the medium. If electronic text is to replace printed text, it is absolutely essential that it be as comfortably usable/readable. Until recently that might have seemed unlikely. However, our own research (Ingraham & Bradburn, 2003) and that of others (List, 2001; Davidov, 2002), suggests that the principle obstacles to reading text from screens are no longer technical, but are to do with ergonomics and poor text design. It is possible to design text that is easily readable and usable from a range of electronic devices. [We have reported on a number of strategies for the production of readable text on our website.]

From the perspective of the current argument, the key to establishing the bridge between paper and electronic academic text is the advent of wireless networking to portable devices, perhaps most importantly to tablet PCs. These can provide a platform that, relatively speaking, is as portable as a book and is also capable of displaying, at a reasonable size, material in any medium including text. With such devices it becomes possible to disengage text from the limitations of paper and, if one wishes, begin to exploit alternative media both within and instead of the text.

Scholarly Rhetoric in Digital Media

Of course, the fact that a technological opportunity exists doesn't necessarily mean that academia must exploit it. There is, however, one reasonably convincing argument as to why academics should do so. All academics have an obligation to consider all the evidence available concerning whatever the object of their study is irrespective of the medium in which that evidence is contained. However, the implications of this argument are perhaps more complex than is commonly recognised. In 'Scholarly Rhetoric in Digital Media' (Ingraham, 2000) I explored these in some detail and it would be inappropriate to rehearse them again in detail here. However, the main tenets of that argument are pertinent.

Emerging digital technologies offer, among other things, two opportunities for the conduct of scholarly discourse. First, they provide the opportunity to include within scholarly discourse information in non-print(able) formats and, second, they provide the opportunity to conduct scholarly discourse in non-print(able) formats. In both cases, the conduct of the discourse is problematized. It is problematized because scholarly argument is fundamentally rooted in print. This simply means that as academics we have 500 years of experience in articulating our arguments through print. We have well developed and well understood conventions in which we have been trained and in which we train our students. This is not true for the emerging electronic media.

From a semiotic perspective, this may be viewed as a problem of rhetoric. That is, the effectiveness of an academic argument is partly a matter of the quality of the evidence, partly a matter of the robustness of the reasoning and partly a matter of the representational conventions through which the argument is mediated, its rhetoric. It is these conventions that, as a general rule, we do not well understand for media other than print. Television news, for example, is both an object for scholarly examination and a source of evidence for other scholarly arguments. However, the evidence contained in a news broadcast is not a transparent record of facts. Its significance is mediated by a whole range of broadcast conventions that need themselves to be interpreted if the meaning/importance of the evidence is to be fully comprehended.

This is true for any and all media. Each medium may be understood to have its own set of conventions, its own rhetoric, which contributes to the generation of its significance. Scholars wishing to include such evidence in their discourse will need to learn to evaluate the impact of such rhetorics in order to fully understand the significance of particular pieces of evidence in the context of wider arguments. Still further, it is likely that these rhetorics will again be modified by their interaction with one another in complex multimedia objects. In short, using multi-media evidence within scholarly discourse requires academics to acquire new sets of evaluatory skills and techniques if they are to insure the reliability of their evidence.

If we take the further step of producing scholarly discourse in media that are not printable the rhetoric of the medium will become still more important and we will need to evolve new models of discourse. Currently, I am only aware of one formally published work of scholarship (as opposed to teaching materials) in which print is not the primary medium of communication. This is Hardy & Portelli's (1999) "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~ A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky." This is an audio essay and its rhetorical model is that of the radio documentary; and that may provide a useful clue to what the future of non-print mediated scholarly discourse might look like.

The scope of an hour or half hour documentary programme is often not dissimilar to that of a lecture or scholarly article. Often they are equally well researched and convincingly argued. Ironically, however, conventional documentaries are not, by scholarly standards, well documented. Experts are commonly interviewed, but there is none of the panoply of references through which academics normally both test the legitimacy of evidence and opinion, and locate a particular argument in a wider area of scholarly debate.

However, this lacuna could easily be filled in an interactive documentary where hyper-information structures can be used to position the broadcast documentary within the wider area of discourse. The BBC's recent series Walking with Beasts (2002) provides an example of what an interactive, multimedia documentary might look like (Ingraham, in press). Its level of scholarship is secondary rather than tertiary education and it lacked full video-on-demand control. Nevertheless it provided viewers with opportunities to access a range of additional information in various media co-temporaneously with the broadcast programme.


Examples such as these are, I think, suggestive of the shape of things to come as broadcast media and the Internet become increasingly interdependent and readily available on wirelessly networked, handheld electronic devices capable of serving academia as 'multimedia books'. It may be argued that such models are unsustainably expensive, but bearing in mind that we have gone from an academic world in which there were effectively no networked desktop PCs to one in which every academic (at least in the developed world) is networked to every other one in less than 25 years, this seems to me to be needlessly pessimistic. Academia has the skills and equipment to produce media rich discourse and, if it perceives the need, it will find the money. However, we mustn't under-estimate the other challenges of digital discourse. It may literally deconstruct our ways of thinking (Landow, 1997) or undermine the filtering process (Eco, 2002; Harnad, 2002) through which scholarship has traditionally valorised learning, if we do not, as a community, take care to understand the media though which we work.


BBC (2002), Walking with Beasts, Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Davidov, A. (2002). Computer screens are not like paper: typography on the web. In Sassoon, R. (Ed). Computers and Typography 2 (pp 21-40). Bristol, UK. Intellect Books.

Eco, U. (2002), Auteurs et autorit?ɬ©, Text-e, Biblioth?ɬ®que Centre Pompidou, Paris. Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Hardy, C. & Portelli, A. (1999) I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~ A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky, Journal of Multimedia History, Vol. 2. Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Harnad,S. (2002), Lecture et ?ɬ©criture scientifique "dans le ciel": Une anomalie post - gutenbergienne et comment la r?ɬ©soudre, Text-e, Biblioth?ɬ®que Centre Pompidou, Paris. Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Ingraham, B, (2000), Scholarly Rhetoric in Digital Media, Journal of Interactive Media in Education. Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Ingraham, B. (in press). Ambulating with mega-fauna. In Bayne, S. & Land, R. (Eds.). Education in cyberspace. London. Routledge.

Ingraham, B. & Bradburn, E. (2003). Converting OLF materials for use online. London. The Open Learning Foundation.

Ingraham, B. & Bradburn, E. (2003a), Sit Back and Relax, Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Interdisciplines (2002). The Future of Web-Publishing. Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Landow, G. (1997). Hypertext 2.0. London. Johns Hopkins University Press.

List, D. (2001), Screenreading, Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from /scread.html

My Washington Post. Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Techlearn (2002), Educational Computing for the 21st Century, Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Text-e, Biblioth?ɬ®que Centre Pompidou, Paris. Retrieved 16th May, 2003, from

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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