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May 14, 2009

The role of universities in a Web 2.0 world?

Brian Kelly, writing about the Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report, ends by referring to the recommendation to "explore issues and practice in the development of new business models that exploit Web 2.0 technologies" (Area 3: Infrastructure), suggesting that it has to do with "best practices for institutional engagement (or not) with Web 2.0". I don't know what the report intended by this statement but, to me at least, it seems like business models are a pretty fundamental issue... potentially much more fundamental than Brian's interpretation.

I noted a similar issue in the CILIP2 discussions of a few weeks ago. Asking "how should CILIP use Web 2.0 to engage with its members?" ignores the more fundamental question, "what is the role of an organisation like CILIP in a Web 2.0 world?". It's a bit like asking an independent high-street bookshop to think about how it uses Web 2.0 to engage with its customers, ignoring that fact that Amazon might well have just trashed its business model entirely!

Luckily for universities there isn't (yet?) the equivalent of an Amazon in the HE sector so I accept that the situation isn't quite the same. Indeed, there are strong hints in the report that aspects of the traditional university, face to face tutor time for example, are well liked by their customers (I know many people hate the term 'customers' but it strikes me that is increasingly what the modern HE student has become). Nonetheless, I think that particular recommendation would be better interpretted as having more to do with "what is the role for universities in a Web 2.0 world?" than with "how do universities best use Web 2.0 to enhance their current practice?"?

Or, to put it a different way, 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.

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Hi Andy - I think it is unsurprising that a committee chaired by a vice-chancellor of a University and a meeting organised by a professional body (CILIP) would focus on how their respective sectors should be engaging with Web 2.0. And I welcome both the CLEX report and the willingness of CILIP to engage more pro-actively with a Social Web environment.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a need to ask the question "what is the role for universities (and professional bodies such as CILIP)in a Web 2.0 world?" But to conflate that question with the issues which have started to be addressed would, IMHO, be counter-productive. Now that these two sectors have recognised that the world is now very different we can start asking the follow-up questsions.

It reminds me of the analogy 'Railroads thought they were in the railroad business, but they were in the transport business'.

We need to be checking all the time that whatever it is we are doing we understand the difference between what we do, and the routes or methods by which we do it.

I feel this is especially true in the CILIP debate - if you think that a key role of the organisation is bringing professionals together, and that suddenly becomes easy for individuals to do in a self-organising way, then you have to question whether you can still add value to that process - and if so, how.

While I'm here - any evidence that Web 2.0 does change everything? Also, Amazon trashed bookstores (both indie and chain) for a variety of reasons, and I'm not convinced that the Web 2.0 elements are really the key ones?

There is a little doubt in my mind that Web 2.0 will eventually change everything in respect of university education. We have said the same about online learning (VLEs) and access to eResources in the past, but what makes the current situation different is the emergence of communication and collaboration tools that easily and transparently transcend the organisation. With emergence also of Federated Access Management as well you then have a mechanism for federated universities and federated learning.

In other words key infrastructural elements are falling into place which provide the means to deliver true open learning and allow the institutions which are fast of foot to establish brands to take advantage of this convergence of capabilities.

The Web 2.0 university will be one therefore that consumes, collaborates and communicates - some are better placed to build such a model, others not. The current economic crisis will throw up the new generation and others may not survive as the value they will add will be much less.

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