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Startup culture and the future of academic libraries: An interview with Brian Mathews

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

“Startups are organizations dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty” (p.4)

I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Mathews, the Associate Dean for Learning & Outreach at Virginia Tech’s University Libraries.  Mathews is one of the most creative administrators in higher education today. He is the author of the popular Ubiquitous Librarian blog, part of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Blog Network, and the 2009 book “Marketing Today’s Academic Library: A Bold New Approach to Communicating with Students”.  Recently, Brian gained international attention for his work “Think Like A Startup: a white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism” intended to inspire transformative thinking in higher education using insight into startup culture and innovation methodologies.

Our conversation focused on the need for academic libraries and higher education leaders to “think like a startup”, Brian’s efforts to create and sustain an innovative culture at Virginia Tech, several user-experience research projects, potential roles for librarians in massive open online courses, and the future of scholarly publishing.

“Our jobs are shifting from doing what we’ve always done very well, to always being on the lookout for new opportunities to advance teaching, learning, service, and research” (p. 2).

Mathews’ white paper “Think Like a Startup” makes a compelling case that within 20 years many of the modern academic libraries’ services will be housed and run by other units across campus.  Therefore, Mathews argues academic libraries need to forge new partnerships across campus, discover new ways to create value for their users, and experiment with radical new approaches to solving their most pressing needs.

Click the table above for a larger version.

References

Mathews, B. (2012). Think Like A Startup: a white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism.

“Sunset 14” From the album “As Days Get Shorter” by Sharp CC BY-NC 2.5

 

Is it time to boycott non-open journals?

Danah Boyd joined the call for reforming how academics publish their work by calling for a boycott of non-open-access journals …and, provided a list of suggestions on what needs to be done now:

  • Tenured Faculty and Industry Scholars: Publish only in open-access journals.
  • Disciplinary associations: Help open-access journals gain traction.
  • Tenure committees: Recognize alternate venues and help the universities follow.
  • Young punk scholars: Publish only in open-access journals in protest, especially if you’re in a new field.
  • More conservative young scholars: publish what you need to get tenure and then stop publishing in closed venues immediately upon acquiring tenure.
  • All scholars: Go out of your way to cite articles from open-access journals.
  • All scholars: Start reviewing for open-access journals.
  • Libraries: Begin subscribing to open-access journals and adding them to your catalogue.
  • Universities: Support your faculty in creating open-access journals on your domains.
  • Academic publishers: Wake up or get out.

(The above list is abstracted from her original post.)

I probably fall under the “young punk” category in her list, and publish in both traditional and new media as an attempt to compromise and appeal to both conservative and cutting-edge scholars. How can we move away from a culture of appeasement of 20th century academic culture and refocus our knowledge diffusion toward media formats that are more appealing to younger and more tech-savvy academics –such as blogs, and the spaces where open access journals and other, new, open media interface? How long until the academy will finally accept highly commented and linked blog posts as legitimate, peer-reviewed articles in a tenure review?

Is there room for term papers in the 21st century?

The flak I caught yesterday regarding SafeAssign got me thinking about term papers in the 21st century. Information and communications technologies make it easy and rewarding to share information. More recently, however, ICTs are allowing people to build creative and innovative products from the information available. We’re evolving into a “cut-and-paste society.” Some examples of which are:

  • YouTube, which allows anybody to share videos that interest them with anybody in the world for free
  • Mogulus, which allows anybody to create their own TV station for free (something that very recently required a sizable staff and millions of dollars of funding)
  • GarageBand, which provides people with tools to record, mix and publish their own music
  • Hip-hop, which often mixes, juxtaposes and generates new meanings from music, images and texts

Academic culture and traditions have not caught up to 21st century society. What real meaning is there for society if we were to continue to place heavy focus on traditional term papers, and police the content to make sure no influence is present from modern society?

Creative work, also, is being generated increasingly by machines. Two examples are Brutus and the 20th century’s MINSTREL (see Noah’s comments). Why should we worry about originality in student work if we are perhaps only a couple years (or months?) away from machines that will be able to write original essays, theses, novels, etc., for them? …and what if these machines could write these documents better than –and vastly outperform– most students?

Is there something else schools should focus on?

Random tinkering as a pathway to innovation

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes for Forbes that:

Things, it turns out, are all too often discovered by accident–but we don’t see that when we look at history in our rear-view mirrors. The technologies that run the world today (like the Internet, the computer and the laser) are not used in the way intended by those who invented them. Even academics are starting to realize that a considerable component of medical discovery comes from the fringes, where people find what they are not exactly looking for.

If random tinkering is the pathway to innovation, then we need more of it. He continues:

We need more tinkering: Uninhibited, aggressive, proud tinkering. We need to make our own luck. We can be scared and worried about the future, or we can look at it as a collection of happy surprises that lie outside the path of our imagination.

Tinkering is one approach to Leapfrogging. Creative, edgy Leapfrog organizations that lead in the New Paradigm of globalization, knowledge society and accelerating change in the 21st Century will create vibrant, visionary, hard-charging, front-running and value-creating institutions that everybody will be proud to support, work for, teach at, matriculate to, collaborate with, and donate toward. Shy of risk of failure, most academic and other educational environments are not conducive to tinkering. How might we build educational academic and educational cultures that embrace experimentation and innovation?

A question on linking open courseware to faculties

The Online Education Database published their list of “Top 100 open courseware projects.” This list demonstrates that there is a lot of content available, encompassing in the fields of agriculture, arts, architecture, archeology, audio & video, biology, botany, chemistry, civil engineering, economics, electronic engineering, general engineering, Earth sciences, geography & geology, history, languages & linguistics, law, literature, mechanical engineering, paleontology, physics, political Science, psychology, and the social sciences.

Quality among open courses vary significantly, and most open courseware do not plug into the Web 2.0 “wisdom of crowds” that can enhance quality and provide avenues for new knowledge production. Furthermore, most faculty distance themselves from online publishing and knowledge dissemination. Even worse, few faculty (at the undergraduate level, at least) as concerned about generating new knowledge with students.

My question is, how can open courseware and academics/professionals be retooled jointly to create open, new knowledge-producing spaces for students and life-long learners?

Crisis? What crisis?

Enders, J. (1999). Crisis? What crisis? The academic professions in the “knowledge” society. Higher Education, 38(1), 71-81.

Enders addresses the uncertainty of academic professions at universities in a future, knowledge-based society. The changing role and nature of universities in a knowledge-based society will cause fragmentation and differentiation among the professoriate to proliferate as new concepts of professional identities emerge. Citing previous research, the author highlights analytical problems in determining the future of academic professions.