TEP TeachBlog headerWhither Research? « Teaching Effectiveness Program

Whither Research?

This is the first of two posts engaging the question of the future of research and teaching in higher education.

Part One: Challenges

The University of Oregon prides itself as a research institution and takes seriously its role as the “flagship” institution of higher education in Oregon. As President Lariviere states in his welcome message at the UO website, “our faculty members boast worldwide reputations, and are dedicated to both working with students and to conducting innovative research.” Indeed, the UO draft Academic Plan notes that UO “carries a unique responsibility for the state in world-wide competition for excellence in education and research.”

Yet two trends concerning research pose significant challenges to the future of research in higher education.

First, students are struggling with how to conduct basic research even though information – and lots of it – is increasingly available at the push of a button. A recent study by the Project Information Literacy Progress Report indicates that a large majority of students (84 percent) feel it is difficult to begin a research project, and lack confidence in and experience with such essential skills as defining and narrowing a topic, and distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information sources.  Although many students consider themselves “adept at evaluating information and applying [research] techniques,” the study concludes that most students surveyed “lacked the research acumen for framing an inquiry in the digital age where information abounds and [therefore] intellectual discovery was paradoxically overwhelming for them.” In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alison J. Head, co-principal investigator for the study, further adds that “college students approach research as a hunt for the right answer instead of a process of evaluating different arguments and coming up with their own interpretation.”

Second, libraries are struggling to remain relevant in a context of budget cuts in higher education, on the one hand, and rising costs for access to scholarly information, on the other hand. Barbara Fister, professor and academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, has recently issued a “liberation bibliography manifesto” that puts the situation in perspective.  As she explains in an article in Thought & Action, that most academic databases and journals are now privately owned and available only via license agreements that are very expensive and must be renewed each year. In many cases, several journals or databases are lumped together in a “big deal” under a single license, thus libraries cannot attempt to reduce costs by being selective about particular journals – all too often it is an all or nothing affair. Yet if a library can no longer afford to pay for the “temporary rental of information” granted by a license subscription, all of that material simply disappears from its online collection. Librarians also face the additional dilemma of providing faculty and departments access to specialized journals – necessary for them to pursue their research and remain competitive in their areas – even though such journals are often most expensive.  In short, Fister argues, libraries are in the midst of a “new tragedy of the commons: a world in which knowledge is turned into intellectual property, monetiz[ed] and made artificially scarce.”  And many libraries, unfortunately, lack the resources to stay afloat.

Given these trends, the challenges are clear: How do we ensure that students, our next generation of researchers, acquire the skills, experience, and confidence required to engage in quality research?  And, how do we ensure that knowledge does not become the special privilege of a few, but remains readily accessibly by everyone?

Next week, in part two, we shall consider opportunities for addressing these questions in a positive way.

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