e-Literate on the horizon

Michael Feldstein is editing a special edition of the journal On the Horizon and his contributors are publishing extended discussions of their forthcoming pieces at e-Literate. My post will be appearing next week, and I’ve been reading with interest about the other articles. Scott Wilson and Kamala Velayutham have posted on their article, "Repositioning institutional approaches to technology in the context of Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments and Utility Computing: A cybernetic approach."

We are familiar with the story of how students are interested in web 2.0 apps, social networking, and such, and with how some faculty pursue the integration of such into teaching. We also know that these practices raise issues for colleges and institutions, particulary in the long term. The special issue addresses this general situation.

Wilson and Velayutham point out, off-handedly, that similar issues are appearing in the workplace, citing an accenture study and this blog. The blog and study essentially say that employees find their employers falling behind in technology and that they have access to better applications outside the workplace and want to make use of web 2.0 apps to be more productive. So yes, much like the university. It is also interesting that the response to that blog is quite intense and negative. The responders cite the security problems web 2.0 apps raise for businesses. They also strongly question the idea that they make workers more productive.

Again, much like the university.

It is interesting that in the workplace situation, the argument comes down to something like this. You are an employee. You are obligated to follow your employer’s rules. Your employer owns the technology you use and has the right to determine how it shall be used. Blah, blah, blah. All true. I imagine that the university and its faculty might want to make a similar claim about the classroom and the campus. And yet it’s tricky since the students are not employees but rather customers.

The university and the corporate-industrial workplace share a hierarchical model of organization. If you want to maintain that structure, then you probably have very little use for web 2.0 applications. This should be old news. We have a theory that networked organization can be more creative and productive. We have examples of such organizations working (and failing). And yet we still don’t really understand how these practices work and will work into the future.

Can the university function as an institution with temporary, emergent, fluctuating hierarchies?

As Richard Lanham says, the interesting thing about the attention economy is that it brings the activities of the university to the cultural forefront, at least potentially. Universities have an opportunity to play a significant role in the DIY particpatory culture and smart mob politics of the new era. However doing so will mean really changing our attitude and actually buying into the constructivist pedagogy we often spout.

The university needs to be a facillator, a builder of intellectual sandboxes, a provider of free media materials and the tools to compose with them, and a community builder. Universities will need to check their modernist impluses at the door; they’ll need to stop being (or trying to be) "universal." At this point, my typical response is to say that I don’t believe that will happen for any number of reasons.

However, if you were interested in making something happen, you might start with what Wilson and Velayutham suggest in building technology, policies, and services that link institutional spaces with outside spaces. I’m looking forward to reading their article and seeing what they have in mind, but from my experience, this might include:

  1. Make it easy to embed data from external sites and link out to external sites within the college’s CMS. I mean the fact that Blackboard uses frames is a huge pain in itself and makes me think I’m wrestlin’ a t-rex anyway. Frames!?!
  2. Make it easy for students to embed course feeds on their college portal pages and port this material to Facebook, if they wish. That way, even if their profs are using many different things, they might be able to bring them together somewhere.
  3. Offer support and create campus communities for discussing various choices. Help faculty to make informed choices but let them make their own choices.
  4. Support professional development on pedagogies using these techs, ideally on a discipline-specific level led by experienced faculty in the discipline, or at least someone in the neighborhood (e.g. humanities, social sciences, etc.)
  5. Support faculty and staff to attend national conferences like EDUCAUSE or NMC. We rarely stray from conferences in our discipline and generally blow our travel money that way. (And these tech conferences are not cheap, btw.)
  6. Revise policies across the campus to facillitate online learning. From course scheduling to registration to student evaluations, nearly everything a college does unconsciously assumes face-to-face as a default. All of these processes need to be scrapped and rebuilt.
  7. Incorporate these technologies into the service work of the college.
  8. Encourage faculty to produce electronic scholarship. The more faculty use emerging tech in service and research, the easier it will be for them to use it in teaching as well.
  9. Finally you might want to capitalize on campus early adopters and get them out there supporting these initiatives.

In short though, you’re really going against the tide of security worries and worries about not being able to control what faculty and students are using tech for. There are literarly hundreds of sites where I can create an account, produce content, and/or upload GBs of data for free, or a modest fee. These are sites that have no idea who I am. But my college won’t let me create my own course in Web CT or set up a subdomain. I understand that they want control. That’s why I go somewhere else b/c there are plenty of places that will let me do what I want for free, no questions asked.

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