The history of digitisation is littered with tales of woe in terms of sustainability. Tales of servers being switched just as the user base was established.
But winning projects bring with them their own problems too. Project directors see the possibilities for more content, better tools, enhanced functionality – and as the website grows there is requirement for a mature supporting infrastructure in things like authentication, improved licensing, continual marketing and communication. And perhaps most importantly of all, developing income to help pay for this.
UK universities are filled with successful digital projects that have ambitious plans to expand: WikiVet (open resources for Vets), Galaxy Zoo (crowdsourcing in astronomy), the E-Enlightenment (presenting the Enlightenment as a social network), Vision of Britain (information on Britain’s town and geographies).
Behind each of these projects, there is a passionate team, many of whom have a research role within their university. But here’s the rub. When the website starts to expand, the researchers behind the project have to get involved in the issues involved above – the copyright wars, the battles with authentication. And this means they have less time to actually do the research work that they are appointed to the university for in the first place.
This causes problems both for the individual and for the institution. Something successful is happening, but it’s not necessarily progressing the individual’s career in the way she expected nor responding to the apparent strategic needs of the university. And yet because of the success of the website, new research is happening and the institution is gaining kudos.
To get round this, we need to start defining new roles within universities – digital entrepreneurs. People who are tasked with taking forward all the new challenges; people that cannot really be tied down to specific research nor teaching roles and yet maintain an close connection to them.
These positions don’t have to be full time – they could be combined with more traditional roles – but it is essential for universities and projects to acknowledge and nurture such roles if we are wanting the digital presence of education to flourish.