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Loss, knowledge, skills, technology, play, and referencing

Knowledge dies. Which is fine.

Knowledge dies. Skills become redundant. The right way to do things becomes the wrong way.

So, in all the excitement about new this and new that, we also have to let go. Not just because the curriculum will otherwise burst. But because our learners’ (and our own) heads will become cluttered

Example: My father was a telecommunications engineer. He would have called himself a telephone engineer. He planned regional telephone systems, with loud and acid-smelling machinery-filled and battery-basemented telephone exchanges. I still have some of his old textbooks, with steel engravings of electro-mechanical switches and wiring diagrams.

Of course the particular technologies he studied and practiced have gone, except from museums, as have several successors.

“But surely the principles remain the same?”

Well, no. The change is bigger than technologies, bigger than the shift from people at switchboards to electro-mechanical to electronic, bigger even than fundamental principles. Telecommunications itself, with its ways of thinking and planning as well as its technology, is going. An engineer from Deutsche Telekom told me in 2014 that, by a date in 2016, all their telephony will use the internet. All of it. Good-bye telecommunications.

This kind of thing can be tough for academics. Our identity can be intimately bound up in our discipline or profession or knowledge. Progress, especially loss, may trim a fingernail or it may amputate a limb. The latter will hurt. Let’s not pretend. Even in the middle of the excitement of something new.

Knowing and doing. A need for clarity.

We and our students obviously need to be able to reference properly. Don’t we? We need to know how to reference a source, and cite it in the text. We need to know how to use Harvard or APA or some other referencing systems. Don’t we?

I slid the language there, from “be able to” to “know how to”. That was deliberate. They aren’t the same. Yes, we need to be able to. No, I suggest, we don’t need to know how to. Why not? As Singleton advised in 1974, ask not what machines can do as compared with what people can do. Rather, ask what they can do together.

I’d suffered the great PC crash, and discovered that, although I was fully backed up, and know how to restore, in the event, I couldn’t. The relationship between knowledge and ability can fail in either direction.

The need was urgent. I was co-editing with Celia Popovic Advancing Practice in Academic Development, with 18 chapters, some 25 authors, and therefore several hundred references to check and include.

Technology to the rescue. Rather casually.

Unwilling to spend £174 to buy EndNote again, I looked online for ‘online referencing’ and found – well, try it. See what happens.

Earlier I’d tried Sente and Mendeley, but not got on with them. I’m sure they’re fine, but, not for me. This time, for no particular reason; other I think than it had a cool iPhone app that gave references by scanning the barcode of a book; I lighted on RefME. I spent half an hour or so learning to use it. Mainly by using it, which is hard to distinguish from playing with it. I found:

  • Copious choice of referencing styles (they claim 6500).
  • Excellent access to databases.
  • When you type in a book or article title. it gives you the full reference, and perhaps some similar ones, ready to select and then add page references and notes if you want.
  • If you install the web clipper  it generates a reference from a website.
  • You can, but I think needn’t, organise your references into project folders.
  • You generate references and citations in your chosen format and export them into your article.
  • But, mainly, it felt comfortable. It seems to have the same worldview or model of referencing that I do, even though I couldn’t articulate this view.  I could only have discovered this by using it for a while. Technology is personal.

I’m sure it does more besides. And I know there are many more such, with some overlapping and some different capabilities. Wikipedia showed 31 pieces of reference management software, in an article dated 19 June 2015, and they don’t include RefME. Or Google Scholar.

Knowledge and skill. Revisited.

There’s still some need for knowledge and skill. It helps if the user sees the point of referencing – to acknowledge, and to enable checking and further reading. The web clipper often says the name of a page is ‘Home’ – technically correct perhaps, but less than helpful, and crying out for a more useful title, provided by manual intervention.Many websites show as having no date, even though there is a date somewhere on the first page. More manual intervention needed. Sometimes authors or title are a little scrambled – maybe a problem with data entry and verification. With a couple of minutes of effort these can usually be corrected.But still a lot faster than heading for the library stacks. And you can talk, and drink coffee, while you reference. And serendipity may still happen.

And you always have to ask – does this reference make sense? I guess that needs knowledge. And judgement.

Is anyone out there still teaching referencing? Why?


There’s a sequence that happens with any new technology. Happens to me, anyway. The excitement of discovery. The decision to adopt it, for now, or reject it. The quiet pleasures of getting to know it and building to into daily routine. Then, before you know it, ”Why won’t it do this?” or ”That’s really annoying”.

I sent RefME some suggestions, mainly about (small) screen font and (pale) screen font colours.

But – wouldn’t it be great if it had a special export / paste function that would drop the reference into the right place in the reference list in the article, rather than making me remember my alphabet every time? Never satisfied. I’ll send the idea to RefME.

For me this has been a post about several things:

  • Progress involving loss as well as gain.
  • The need for clarity about the particular relationship between knowledge and ability in particular settings.
  • The personal process of choosing and adopting a new technology.
  • A willingness to be playful, exploratory if you prefer, with academic processes – even in this case, with referencing.

The post may mean other things to you. I’d love to hear.

No Harvards were harmed in the writing of this post.


Singleton, W. T. (1974). Man-machine systems. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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