On Thursday I received a message followed by a subsequent email asking me to contact a journalist at the Guardian newspaper who was writing an article about institutional use of Web 2.0 in higher education. In her email Anthea Lipsett told me that she was writing an article for the Education Guardian about a report on ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ due to be published on Tuesday, 12 May 2009. Anthea wanted some background information on whether HE had embraced Web 2.0 technology, how Web 2.0 is changing HE and whether universities keeping pace with the changes and had been given my name as someone to talk to.
A challenge for me, then, to give my thoughts on these questions! My initial response was to post a tweet inviting suggestions from my Twitter followers. I then drafted some notes which on some of the key points which I felt might be useful to raise in the interview. Although I didn’t have an opportunity to mentioned all of these points in the brief interview I felt it might be worth expanding on my notes and sharing them on the blog so that others can see how I feel the higher education sector is responding to and engaging with Web 2.0.
What is Web 2.0?
If you are writing an article about how Web 2.0 is changing higher education and how higher education is responding to Web 2.0 you first need to clarify what you mean by the term ‘Web 2.0’.
‘Network as a Platform’
Web 2.0 could refer to the concept of ‘network as a platform’. In the past I feel that institutional IT service providers have felt threatened by this notion which, in the UK, seems to imply Thatcherite out-sourcing and privatisation. This doesn’t go down well with the Guardian and Independent readers you will typically find in the university sector! However back in 2006 at the UCISA management Conference I gave a talk on “IT Services: Help Or Hindrance?” in which I argued there was a need to embrace the mixed economy of in-house and external providers of IT services. I was pleased (and slightly surprised) to discover a willingness to accept such changes – this was a very different response to my “A Controversial Proposal” talk which I gave to an audience of institutional Web managers back in 2000 which, in retrospect, made similar arguments but at a time in which the underlying technical infrastructure and business models had not been established.
I think now, however, IT services departments are much more comfortable with embracing ‘services in the Cloud’. As an example, see the recent blog post on “Google for students” by Chris Sexton, IT Services Director at the University of Sheffield and UCISA Chair in which she described how a “project group agreed to recommend that we outsource our service to Google and implement Google mail and calendar in the first instance – possibly moving to more of the apps later such as Google docs” and then went on to add “first major service we’ve outsourced, but I suspect that over the next few years it won’t be the last“.
Culture of Openness
Web 2.0 also embraces a culture of openness. And this is an area in which the higher education community has taken a high profile in for several years. The research community has been pro-active in promoting open access to research publication, with advocates such as Professor Stevan Harnard playing a prominent role in promoting alternative business models which can enable research publications to be freely available for use by others whilst maintaining editorial and peer reviewing processes which are essential for maintaining the quality of research outputs.
This culture of openness is increasingly being applied in other areas of higher education, such as open educational resources, with the JISC funding an Open Educational Resources Programme) to expand on the amount of educational content which is available. Similar initiatives are being taken to open access to scientific data as can be seen from the blog posts of open science advocates such as Professor Peter Murray-Rust and Cameron Neylon.
Blogs, Wikis, …
But rather than the more philosophical aspects of Web 2.0, perhaps the issues concern the provision of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and wikis. The University of Warwick was the first UK university to provide a blog service for its staff and students. And after some initial concerns about how an institution should go about managing the content I suspect we are now finding that IT Services are starting to regard blogs and wikis as fairly mainstream the higher education sector – that the impression I had after the UKOLN workshop on Exploiting the Potential of Wikis held back in November 2006 and Exploiting the Potential of Blogs and Social Networks held a year later.
I suspect, however, that the main area of interest may be how universities are engaging with the Social Web and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
The first example of institutional engagement with such social networking services I was aware of was Edge Hill University, which Alison Wildish (who is now manager of the Web Services team here at the University of Bath) described in a plenary talk on “Let the Students do the Talking…” at the IWMW 2007 event (and note that a video of her talk is available). I suspect that nowadays institutional marketing departments and alumni offices will be familiar with the potential of social networking services and many will have established a presence in popular service such as Facebook. In addition institutions have also started to make use of Twitter as another channel for engaging with their communities.
Social Networks Beyond Marketing
Of more interest, I feel, is the question of how universities are using social networks to support their teaching and learning activities. And this is probably an area in which there it is more speculative as to is happening beyond the early adopters . I suspect there is also more diversity of opinions on the question of what institutions are seeking to achieve through use of social networks and how institutional policies and decisions should be developed to support such nebulous aims.
If we regard social networks as supporting informal learning it may be questionable as to whether institutions need any formal policies beyond not banning their use. After all informal learning has always taken place in universities, in bars, coffee rooms, students kitchens, etc. but we haven’t sought to manage the discussions and interactions. Should we seek to do so in online social spaces? And if we try do, isn’t there a danger that student will simply move to other online spaces?
Some Concluding Thoughts
I feel it is important that universities should be pro-active in developing and implementing new media literacy strategies for members of their institutions, including members of staff (academic, senior policy makers, …) as well as students. This should not only cover assessment of information found on the Web but also issues related to creation of content and engagement with communities.
There will be a need to gather evidence as to the effectiveness of informal learning and the effectiveness of use of social networks in more formal contexts. I suspect there will be a need to understand how the effectiveness of social networks differs across different disciplines and also across different groups of users.
And as well as gaining a better understanding of how social networks can support student learning, there is also a need to understand how social networks can enhance the effectiveness of teaching and research staff within our institutions, through, for example, support for communities of practice. This is an area of particular interest to me, with my interests in engaging with and learning from a number of communities related to my professional areas of interest and activities, including standards development, Web accessibility and the broad area of digital library development activities.
That’s my summary of how I feel the higher education sector is embracing Web 2.0. I’d welcome your thoughts, comments and observations.