Yesterday a leader column in The Guardian suggested that the current global economic crisis is “Not your father’s recession“. Rather than being simply the latest downturn  in a economic cycle which has been with us since 1945 the leader writer feels that this recession is very different from those we (and our parents) have experienced in the past.

On the same day Andy Powell on the eFoundation’s blog invites us to consider The role of universities in a Web 2.0 world? Andy feels that the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience (CLEX)’s report on “Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World” should have sought to address the question”what is the role for universities in a Web 2.0 world?” rather than “how do universities best use Web 2.0 to enhance their current practice?

Similarly Andy feels the the recent CILIP2 Open Session missed an opportunity to address the fundamental issue of”What is the role of an organisation like CILIP in a Web 2.0 world?” instead discussing the much safer question of “how should CILIP use Web 2.0 to engage with its members?“.

Andy’s post concludes by suggesting that “if Web 2.0 changes everything, [he] see[s] no reason why that doesn’t apply as much to professional bodies and universities as it does to high street bookshops“. Or to put it another way, it’s not just about sometimes slow-moving institutions eventually accepting the importance of the IT innovations which the early adopters have been talking about – and using – for some time now. Rather we don’t just have to develop the “best practices for institutional engagement (or not) with Web 2.0” which I suggest. This needs to be done (and I’ve very pleased that the CLEX report and the CILIP community seem to have accepted this) – but we also need to look closely at the roles which our institutions have traditionally played and the services they have provided and questions whether these are still needed.

On one level support services in our institutions need to question their traditional roles.  Is there a need for IT Service departments, for example, to continue to provide and host mainstream services such as email. In her blog Chris Sexton, Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services at the University of Sheffield and UCISA chair has described proposals to move its email service for students to Google – and the comments from the users on her blog seems very positive. And how should academic libraries respond to the wide range of information sources of available ‘out there’ . The traditional approach has been to ensure that information literacy provision allows users to be able to differentiate between quality controlled sources of information, such as academic journals, and widely used services such as Wikipedia which don’t provide such managed approaches to quality. But as we have recently discovered that publishers of research journals such as Elsevier publish fake academic publications, it would seem that such traditional notions are already questionable.

Put as well as the provision of services such as email we also need to question whether it is desirable for  institutions to provide email addresses for  staff and students. Since email is used to authenticate registration and subsequent changes for many Web 2.0 services, what will happen when people leave the institution and thus can no longer use their email address? Wouldn’t it be sensible for institutions to advice students on short course and staff on short-term contracts to use an email account which can still be used when they leave if they wish to use Web 2.0 services, whether for social or academic purposes? And if so, how short is a short course? A  diploma, lasting a few months? A 1 year MSc? Or a 3 year undergraduate course?

This is part of a wider discussion about identify in a Web 2.0 world, and the focus of another post on the eFoundations blog. “Identity in a Web 2.0 world is not institution-centric” argues Andy, a view strongly supported by Paul Miller. Joss Winn explores these issues in more depth in a  blog post entitled “The user is in control” in which he describes a blueprint outline which recognises that “University students are at least 18 years old and have spent many years unconsciously accumulating or deliberately developing a digital identity” and will increasingly question and resist the idea that the institution will impose a new digital identity.

What, then, “is the role for universities in a Web 2.0 world?” to revisit Andy’s question? And will a combination of the continuing economic recession, possible implications of global warming and the availability of  Open Educational Resources does the traditional higher education institution have a future?  And if you point out the failure of the UK eUniversity (see The Real Story Behind the Failure of U.K. eUniversity – PDF) to argue for a continuation of the status quo I’ll suggest that that provides a valuable learning experience, illustrating some of the ways approaches  to radical transformation of the sector which we now know to avoid.

Web 2.0 is not just the latest in a series of IT developments (ranging from mainframes, mini-computers, workstations, standalone PCs, PCs on a LAN, PCs with Internet and Web access to today’s mobile devices) which institutions have successfully absorbed and integrated into the mainstream, I feel. It’s not your father’s IT innovations – it’s something much more radical. And if you deny this aren’t you behaving in a similar fashion to the music industry,  which refused to acknowledge that developments such as the Internet, mobile music players  and P2P networks  fundamentally changed how the industry needed to operate?

Or is this a tongue-in-cheek post, which I’ll be happy to distance myself from in a few year’s time? To be honest, I don’t know.  What do you think?