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University 2.0

Just what the world needs – another buzzword! Actually, this refers to last Monday’s trek to the School of Business at Kingston University for a day discussing Web 2.0 and it’s implications for the HE sector (http://business.kingston.ac.uk/university2.0 – includes slides).It was a curate’s egg of a day, to be honest, and highlighted a lot of the problems of definition still bedevilling Web 2.0 in the context of HE.

Dave Martland of Kingston’s School of Business Information Management differentiated between personal tools (calendars, news readers etc) and collaborative tools, highlighting Yahoo pipes as an example of where the two merge. (see also the Read/Write web article). Personally, I’m not convinced that Pipes has necessarily got it right (too complicated for mainstream use in its current format) and Yahoo’s current revolving door at the top makes it difficult to judge their overall strategic intentions but he’s right to highlight the need for intelligent, personalised filtering tools. I’ve been using Particls on my work desktop with some success for a while and enjoy the sensation of information dropping serendipitously into my lap rather than having to slog through my feeds, though’ it’s far from perfect. He also touched on what inadvertently seemed to be one of the defining theme of the day – open academic communities versus closed ones.

Phil Molyneux, of the same school focused on academic bookmarking software and the problem of how to get people to cite properly and the tools that might help them (e.g. CiteSeer, Citeulike). Another point of interest was the notion of the epic amount of library organising software (e.g. Bookster, the amazing Library Thing) available at little or no cost and it’s potential to help you organise your research data. Still, I found the Web 2.0 angle hard to pin down and possibly it just wasn’t of interest to Phil.

Nick Kings from BT spoke about “Web 2.0 Meets The Enterprise”, went into some detail about semantically rich information (in the context of Project DIP) and the possibility of how Web 2.0 plus the semantic web equals Web 3.0. He was fascinating on BT’s work on producing “semantic wikis” for generating pages purely through the combination of semantic information responding to user tagging. On the other hand, he was clear about the need for corporate definition of data and had no time for microformats at all. To me, it still sounded a little like old-school top-down knowledge management with a requirement for strong facilitation and control of the direction ontologies take.

Anne-Marie McEwan of the SmartWork Company mostly spoke about dealing with the issue of how web 2.0 cuts across boundaries of culture and status, specifically in the context of high-flying Russian executives who apparently don’t do IM as a rule. Not when they can get someone to do it for them. Hmm. Potentially interesting but it felt underdeveloped as a session and jumped about too many other bases.

The last sessions looked at Second Life and HE and E-Learning. The former I’ll save for a separate post. The latter (from Tim Linsey) was fascinating – a potted history of the development of VLEs from a practitioner who’d been in the trenches throughout the whole that also illustrated the tension I mentioned earlier – the need to try and accommodate new modes of communicating and learning whilst retaining control of them. In this case, in stead of letting students loose on blogs and wikis, the university (and they aren’t alone) was implementing them as plug-ins within Blackboard. For me, this defeats a lot of the purpose of how students can best exploit this kind of technology. Warwick, for example, has largely adopted a policy of laissez fair resulting in an inspirational avalanche of blogs and postings from students. Meanwhile (as Tim pointed out) YouTube was filling up with clips and lectures from universities and students.

The choice, then, is to either accept that the boundaries of the zone formally known as The University are becoming permeable and diffuse as content and activity migrates to any number of Web 2.0 destinations and invest accordingly in facilities for students to own and aggregate their activities, or to continue to fight to control and corral everything that goes on with a corresponding cost in creativity and innovation.

There’s another cost involved in the latter option which sadly, wasn’t really explored and that’s the opportunity cost. If you aren’t “there” (wherever “there” is this week), you can guarantee that your potential students will be. And in today’s HE free-market, if you aren’t where your students are, you ultimately aren’t anywhere at all.