How should an institution seek to address deployment strategies for Web 2.0? One approach would be to hold a high-profile event, with talks from some of the early adopters of Web 2.0 technologies and senior managers in the institution, external speakers to provide insights from outsiders (who will have a disinterested view of local power struggles and political intrigue!) and, if you are feeling brave, perhaps including views from the student contingent. And as well as talking about Web 2.0 technologies, you might even seek to embed the technologies in the event, with remote participants, chat facilities and perhaps even a Podcast.

Sounds good, but difficult to achieve in practice? This is what the University of Edinburgh did recently, with myself as one of the external speakers. Read on for my thoughts on an excellent event, which I would encourage other institutions to emulate.

On Friday 24 November 2006 I was an invited speaker at the University of Edinburgh’s Stargazing Group’s conference on the topic of Social Technologies – Pioneer to Mainstream. The conference attracted about 120 participants (not 70 as stated originally), although, in the welcoming talk by Helen Hayes (Vice Principal for Knowledge Management and Librarian to the University of Edinburgh and a member of the JISC Committee for the Information Environment) we heard that the event was heavily oversubscribed. A live video feed was available during the event for remote participants and a chat facility and Wiki were also available. It is also intended to make the various talks available as a Podcast.

In the opening session we heard from some of the Web 2.0 pioneers in the University. Paul Anderson (who, like me, attended the first WWW conference at CERN in 1994) gave a talk on Web 2.0 and the University. It was pleasing that Paul didn’t simply give describe benefits of blogs and wikis but acknowledged that “the University can no longer “control” the applications and services which people use” and asked participants to address the question “Is the traditional model of providing central mail services, or diary services (for example) still appropriate?“.

Paul’s talk was followed by two examples of how Web 2.0 (and related) applications are being used within the institution. Sian Bayn’s talk on “Weblogs, web-essays and wikis: issues for teaching with Web 2.0” gave a briefoverview of the theoretical contexts of digital textuality and literacy followed by a look at a series of examples of the pedagogical
uses of web-essays, wikis and weblogs in an MSc in e-learning. One of the challenges Sian raised was how such work should be assessed.

This was followed by a talk by Michael Begg on “Game-Informed Learning and Web 2.0 in MVM (College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine)“. One of the example Michael mentioned was Second Life – an immersive environment which is being widely talked about at present.

Following these talks a presentation by two students (Thomas Graham and Ben Miller) described Student use of social technologies. This was a very illuminating demonstration of the various social networking tools which are popular within the student community: Facebook is, it seems, very popular at the institution, and most students seem to prefer Google’s GMail service to the University-provided email service.

Following the students’ presentation we then heard the senior management’s perspective on Web 2.0 (the Empire strikes back?).

The Principal‘s main concerns were with the reputation of the University. He seemed willing to accept that students would wish to make use of social networking services, but felt that such services should not be hosted at the University. Charlotte Waelde, Co-Director, AHRB Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology Law, addressed some of the instituion’s legal concerns. Michael Fourman, head of department of the School of Informatics, seemed more supportive of Web 2.0 (explaining the ‘long tail’ in terms of Zipf’s law, although he did, amusingly, reflect on how Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Jack Straw might have felt if Facebook had been available and widely used in their radical student days. Finally Brian Gilmore pointed out the dangers of over-hyping technologies, and used JISC’s Eduroam service as a technology which is suffering from deployment problems.

In response to what I feel was quite a conservative series of responses I challenged Charlotte’s position. Rather than hearing about possible legal barriers I felt that prestigious institutions such as the University of Edinburgh should, in some cases, be seeking to challenge changes to the law which may place barriers to the educational community (e.g. software patents), engaging in discussions and debates on more flexible approaches (such as the work by myself and others in developing a holistic approach to accessibility) and should recognise that there will be times when we should take a risk assessment and risk management approach to possible legal barriers.

After lunch Kevin Thompson, Ultralabs, spoke on “Collaboration in an online environment”. Kevin looked at general trends in the use of technologies in learning environments and described how collaboration in learning is key (on-line learning is becoming much more participative than receptive – collaborative rather than content-based, and so Blogs, Wikis, email, Instant chat and First Class communities can all be used to enhance learning.

I then gave my talk on “Let’s Do It Now: Mainstream Uses Of Collaborative Technologies“. As a demonstration of the light-weight approach I take to legal issues I pointed to the title page of my slides which has a statement about the Creative commons licence which is available for the slides (and a caveat explaining that it does not cover images, such as the UKOLN, JISC, MLA and University of Bath logos). I also stated that the licence also applied to my talk, and that I was willing for it to be broadcast, recorded and made available as a Podcast. Finally I acknowledged the presence of a remote audience, checked that they could hear me (the response of the chat channel was that I should stay close to the microphone) and engaged with them by setting them an activity.

My slides are available on my Web site (and on Slideshare) so I’ll not repeat the content of the talk here.

Following my talk Robert Muetzelfeldt gave a talk on Environmental modelling and Web 2.0: Using Connotea to share XML-represented information Synopsis. This talk was more technically-focussed, describing the benefits of moving environment models away from programming languages (such as Fortran) to being made available using XML. This work also made use of the Connotea social bookmarking service as a repository for the resources.

Towards the end of the conference, Chris Adie and Charlotte Waelde were asked to give their thoughts on the issues raised during the day. As I had taken a high profile during the day, I was very interested in hearing the conclusions. Chris repeated the list of concerns regarding Web 2.0, but concluded that the institution needed to engage with Web 2.0, for the reasons I’d given. Charlotte Waelde described that we needed to treat legal issues seriously, and then highlighted my talk as an example of how use of Web 2.0 legal issues could be addressed. I was very pleased that these conclusions seemed to validate the approach I have been taking during this year.

The event concluded with a panel session. Two issues of particular interest were raised. A suggestion was made that the University of Edinburgh Web site should contain high quality information. I responded by suggesting that that too simplistic: clearly the corporate areas of the Web site should contain accurate information, and the Web site should provide access to, for example, peer-reviewed research publications. But the University could also chose to provide a quality experience for its users, perhaps in the form of less formal Blogs, along the lines of the University of Warwick Blog service.

Finally one person (from the Physics department, I think) stated that his department was active in making use of Web 2.0 services – but sometimes wondered what would happen if the department had made a mistake. I was pleased that this issue was surfaced. I suggested that the University needed not only a deployment strategy for Web 2.0, but also an exit strategy.

To conclude: a very successful conference, and an approach to addressing the challenges which Web 2.0 is raising for institutions which other institutions may wish to consider emulating.
A final word from one of the dozen remote participants:
Many thanks for another thought provoking presentation.
I followed today’s session as a virtual delegate – but not from very far away!

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