The creeping effects of digitisation

When I asked to check out a book about Apple’s Steve Jobs from our university library, I was handed a Kindle, a digital reader. The book I was looking for was one of five or so books that had been loaded onto the reader. Anyone looking for any one of those books gets the whole reader. I wasn’t pleased since I like the feel of paper but I did not have a choice as the library was only getting the work in the digital format.

The switch to digital has been happening with many academic journals, that are no longer obtained in print format by my library. It will certainly free up library space for lot more seating, and I like the convenience of reading the journal article from my office or home when I log into the library and access the journal.

It had to happen some time, and now one new library has decided to go the whole way. A public library in a county in Texas that is under construction now has decided it will be entirely digital. So you can bring your own device and download the material or borrow an electronic reader with the requisite content in it. Of course, you do not even need to visit the library for you can access the material remotely.

The officials believe it will be cheaper to run the library in this format although sometimes digital material is not necessarily cheaper. The problem, of course, is that not all material is available digitally so it will perforce have a limited offering.

The downstream effects of digitisation also have opponents. As journals go digital, publishing firms have begun charging high prices for access to the articles that appear in journals published by them.

Protesting against this, Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist, went into the wiring closet at MIT, a university in Boston, and using his laptop, downloaded articles free through the university’s network. He was caught, prosecuted, and faced jail term. (In a sad twist, he committed suicide early this year.)

Using digital access, other supporters of free access to information and transparency come to mind, including Julian Assange of Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, the US soldier who took advantage of Assange’s platform to reveal confidential US diplomatic communication.

Postal impact

Another slow victim of digitisation has been the post office. More and more people have shifted to e-mail for their communication. Greeting cards have long gone digital with additional features like voice and glitzy animation thrown in. People do not mail their monthly checks to pay bills anymore. They pay online, directly from their bank accounts. Movies and music that would be sent in the form of video-tapes and CDs now travel as digital files. Thus, mail volume, even between 2003 and 2013, has fallen by about 50 per cent.

The US postal system has been reeling from these effects. Losses have been mounting, reaching $16 billion (about Rs 84,800 crore) this year. Prices of postage have been going up steadily but that has not been enough to cover costs. The post-office system undertook a review of its office locations and has been shutting down branches in less used locations, much to the dismay of the local community.

Employment in the service has been trimmed, to cut labour costs. And now, the postal service has decided to stop all Saturday delivery (except for packages and premium priced Express mail). Commercial carriers who use the postal service for their lower-priced delivery services will not be affected.

Creeping digitisation is also shaking that bastion of the personal touch, namely the classroom. Khan Academy popularised online learning by offering quality math classes on YouTube. Many school systems in the US ask their students to watch the Khan Academy videos before coming to class and use class time only for exercises, clarifications, etc.

Online classes

Online classes have been available for some time and have been particularly useful for students who were living far away, travelling, or were only looking to top up their education with a few courses, and not seeking certification.

Universities were content with the knowledge that even when online degrees were available, students still preferred to go to a university for the ‘experience’ and also because of a sneaking suspicion that online programmes were not seen to be of the same value by potential employers.

That began to change first when prestigious universities began to offer online courses free. That has begun to shake up the conventional degree granting institutions, that are seeing falling applications and are, therefore, keen to expand their reach.

The rising costs of a university education are putting it beyond the reach of many and the US President has also been making noises about it. So, universities have begun to think of a compromise, or hybrid model, wherein students will still attend university but half their classes will be online.

The online class will probably be taught by lower-cost assistants who will use it as tutorial sessions or the instructor will assign design learning modules that will be largely self-explanatory. The effect of this is of course greater utilisation of classroom space and the instructor essentially being able to teach twice the number of classes, reducing costs.

Published on March 25, 2013

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