Back in May I wrote a blog post entitled “Not Your Father’s IT Innovation!“. My post referred to Andy Powell’s thoughts on “The role of universities in a Web 2.0 world?” in which he suggested that “if Web 2.0 changes everything, I see no reason why that doesn’t apply as much to professional bodies and universities as it does to high street bookshops“. These posts were written a few days after the “Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World” Report [was] Published“.

I had intended to write a follow-up post to Andy’s closing comment in his post asking “If Web 2.0 will change everything, then how?” but got diverted. Six months later (and doesn’t six months go quickly as you get older!)  I want to revisit the question – my motivation for doing this is that I have been invited to speak at the UCISA CISG conference later this month and the title of my talk is “What if Web 2.0 Really Does Change Everything?“.

But how might Web 2.0 change everything – as opposed to being another IT innovation which, over the years, the sector will successfully embrace as has happened in the past  (e.g. the move away from mainframe computers to minis, workstations, standalone PCs and networked PCs; the move from IT to support research activities to supporting all aspects of  University businesses; etc.)?

And before seeking to predict how such changes might affect University businesses there is a need to explore which aspects of Web 2.0 might act as the key drivers to radical changes with the sector. Some thoughts on aspects of Web 2.0 which could “change everything” :

  • Network as the platform: The importance of services in ‘the Cloud’ may be felt to be of great significance to some.  But does the location and governance of a service really matter to the institution (as opposed to existing service providers within the institution)?  Perhaps if  networked services which provide mission-critical functions were to fail this could result in significant negative changes for the sector. But isn’t that  an issue of monitoring the viability of one’s service providers and ensuring migration strategies are in place  – after all we are familiar with take-overs and companies failing.
  • Social networks: Perhaps the importance social networking will be the key driver for  Web 2.0 changing everything. This is an area which is, in some respects,  new to the sector and encompasses ‘network as the platform’.  Some may feel that a negative aspect of social networks could be the time wasted in developing and maintaining social networks and relationships. But others, including myself, feel that such social networking activities can help to strengthen professional links and engage in activities not previously felt possible.
  • Out-sourced digital identity: A topic frequently discussed on the JISC Access Management Team blog is digital identity management. The institution has traditionally managed the digital identity and access rights for staff and students (and guests) within the institution. But now students are arriving at the institution with their own email accounts and accounts on social networking services, perhaps with well-established communities. And staff, especially at a time in which long-term contracts can no longer be expected, may wish to avoid making use of an institutional digital identity which will disappear if they leave the institution. But does ownership of my digital identity, whether by my institution or a third party service (or, perhaps, by the Government), really change everything from an institutional perspective?
  • New modes of learning: Might we find that the Social Web provides new and more effective ways of learning? This, to me, could be significant as if the evidence suggests that this is the case there would be pressures on the institution to change its approaches to leaning and teaching. But in this area I am speculating. Are people suggesting that this may be the case? Is there evidence to suggest that a Web 2.0 approach to learning could result in a radical transformation in approaches to learning and teaching?
  • New modes of research: The use of Web 2.0 approaches, such as the Social Web, to support research, perhaps to facilitate inter-disciplinary work and enhance professional relationships is an area in which  I feel Web 2.0 can provide significant benefits.  A recent post by Frak Norman entitled “Social networks – are they useful or pointless?” cited a  blog post on the Scholarly Kitchen blog that points up the failure of social networking websites to gain many converts in the scientific community. Although, in response to the blog post, Frank admitted to be a ‘true believer’ we do need to ask whether significant takeup of social networks by the research community would really ‘change everything’. Hasn’t the research community often been willing to explore the potential of new technologies (often causing tensions with IT service department who may nowadays prioritise delivering stable mature services to mass audiences).
  • Reluctance to travel: We are all very aware of the need to address environmental issues. Institutions will be exploring ways of reducing their carbon footprint and the JISC’s Greening ICT programme aims to support work in this area.   One approach to supporting such initiatives might be to make use of the collaborative and communications features of Web 2.0 services in order to minimise the amount of  travel needed across the sector.  We are already seeing increasing numbers of ‘amplified events’ being provided within the sector, which can both help maximise the impact of and benefits of engaging with such events and reducing the carbon footprint for those who participate remotely.  The delivery of online-only events provides another example of how Web 2.0 technologies can potentially deliver environmental benefits. If in ten years time the amount of travel taken by members of the community were to drop significantly, to be replaced by online activities, this might be regarded as ‘changing everything’.
  • Lack of  funding: In light of expected cutbacks in government funding perhaps there will be a cutback in investment in development work in the sector and a greater take-up of externally-hosted Web 2.0 services. Is this case the driver is the lack of funding and use of Web 2.0 may provide a response.
  • Always beta:  Could the ongoing development of services typified by the ‘always beta’ slogan have a significant   role to play in significant changes? I don’t think so – after all  early adopters in the sector have often helped to drive changes, as was seen in the early 1990s when the Web started to appear in many of our institutions  through the initiatives of the early adopters, perhaps circumventing institutional policies on Campus Wide Information Systems.
  • Culture of openness: Might the Web 2.0’s culture of openness be responsible or significant changes? Moves to open access and open data have been encouraged by the ease of access to resources provided by the Web and we are now seeing initiatives to provide access of Open Educational Resources (OER).  A possibility, although whether people will make use of OER resources to any significant extent is still unproven.
  • Generational changes or other binary divides: Marc Prensky’s view of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants has been questioned with Dave White suggesting the need to consider “Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’”.  Could, I wonder, the  expectations that Web 2.0 will change everything be hindered by differing perspectives  and priorities being placed by those who have expectations of working and learning in a social networked environment and those who regard this environment as a tool to be used in clearly defined circumstances?   And might the environment be affected not by Web 2.0 per se but by Web 2.0 as a battleground? After all if we are talking about radical changes across the sector we should expect to encounter resistance and disagreements.
  • Blogs, wikis, social sharing, …: Might the core Web 2.0 technologies (blogs, wikis and social bookmarking and other social sharing services) be instrumental in radical changes? I think not – I think we now understand how such technologies can be used within the sector.
  • Syndication technologies: I also think the ways in which content can be syndicated and reused across differing environments and devices is now understood and will simply be more widely deployed as existing technologies are upgraded to provide further support for such syndication technologies.
  • Mobile access and always connected: Perhaps the expectation is that much greater use of mobile technologies, so that users can always be connected, will be responsible for the higher education sector being transformed in the way that Amazon is felt to have transformed the book selling market place.

I suspect that the radical changes, which have been acknowledged in the “Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World” and “The Edgeless University” reports will be a result of a complex interplay between these (and other) factors. (Of course we haven’t  identified whether the radical changes which these  reports suggested the sector needs to respond to will be for the better or worse – Tara Brabazon, for example, has argued that “The Revolution Will Not Be Downloaded: Dissent in the digital age“).

But returning to the question I have raised – if we feel that  “Web 2.0 will change everything” how will such radical changes take place? And was the comment made at one of the meetings organised by the authors of the  “Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World”  report that “This seminar feels a bit like sitting with a group of record industry executives in 1999” valid?