The technological transformation of scholarly communication infrastructure began in earnest by the mid-1990s. Its effects are ubiquitous in the daily activities of typical researchers, instructors and students, permitting discovery, access to, and reuse of material with an ease and rapidity difficult to anticipate as little as a decade ago. An instructor preparing for lecture, for example, undertakes a simple web search for up-to-date information in some technical area and finds not only a wealth of freely available, peer reviewed articles from scholarly publishers, but also background and pedagogic material provided by its authors, together with slides used by authors to present the material, perhaps video of a seminar or colloquium on the material, related software, on-line animations illustrating relevant concepts, explanatory discussions on blog sites, and often useful notes posted by 3rd party instructors of similar recent or ongoing courses at other institutions. Any and all of these can be adapted for use during lecture, added to a course website for student use prior to lecture, or as reference material afterwards. Questions or confusions that arise during lecture are either resolved in real time using a network-connected laptop, or deferred until afterwards, but with instructor's clarification propagated instantly via a course website or e-mail. Or such lingering issues are left as an exercise for students to test and hone their own information gathering skills in the current web-based scholarly environment. Some courses formalize the above procedures with a course blog that also permits posting of student writing assignments for commentary by other students and the instructor. Other courses employ wikis so that taking lecture notes becomes a collaborative exercise for students.
Many of these developments had been foreseen a decade ago, at least in principle, though certainly not in all the particulars. When the mass media and general public became aware of the Internet and World Wide Web in the mid-1990's, this new "information superhighway" was heavily promoted for its likely impact on commerce and media, but widespread adoption of social networking sites facilitating file, photo, music, and video sharing was not regularly touted. Web access is now being built into cell-phones, music players, and other mobile devices, so it will become that much more ubiquitous in the coming decade. People currently receiving their PhDs became fluent in web search engine usage in high school, and people receiving their PhDs a decade from now will have had web access since early elementary school. (My 3.5 year old son has had access to web movie trailers on demand since the age of 1, but is at least two decades from a doctorate.)
Many aspects of teaching and scholarship will remain unchanged. Web access will not fundamentally alter the rate at which students can learn Maxwell equations for electromagnetism, and many web resources of uncertain provenance, e.g., Wikipedia entries, will require independent expertise to evaluate. We've also already learned that having a vast array of information readily available does not necessarily lead to a better informed public, but can instead exacerbate the problem of finding reliable signal in the multitude of voices. Recent political experience suggests that people tend to gravitate to an information feed that supports their preexisting notions: the new communications technologies now virtually guarantee that it will exist, and moreover make it easy to find. In the below, I will focus on questions related to the dissemination and use of scholarly research results, as well as their likely evolution over the next decade or so. The issues of generating, sharing, discovering, and validating these results all have parallels in non-academic pursuits. In order to guide the anticipation of the future, I'll begin by looking backwards to developments of the early 1990's.