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March 06, 2008

Sharing, socialising and institutional IT service provision

The second theme for my UCISA presentation next week will be around 'sharing and socialising'...

It is clear that there is currently a huge interest in the management and disclosure of scholarly assets by institutions.  This is most visible in the open access repository movement, the growing interest in open data, and the push for open and re-usable learning objects.  The focus tends to be be both on managing and preserving the content, and sharing it openly on the Web with the aim of letting others re-use it in various ways.  And a large part of the policy agenda is concerned with institutional solutions, an approach that I've spent some time arguing against of late.

At the same time there is a whole spectrum of less formal sharing going on in the form of blogs, wikis and uploading content to Flickr, YouTube, Slideshare and so on, most of which tends to happen using Web 2.0 services outside of the institution.

Whist the discussions around how best to openly share content on the Web are interesting, in the context of my UCISA talk I'm more interested in the social networks that grow up around these activities than I am in the sharing activity itself.  Learning and research are social activities and one of the things I'm interested in is how we build online social networks that support them most effectively.  Social networks are like gardens... they need a certain amount of care and attention and they tend to flourish best in the right environment, one facet of which is the concentration effect that Lorcan Dempsey has been talking about recently.  Large-scale globally concentrated social services bring with them network effects that are not possible in smaller-scale service scenarios.

Consider Slideshare as an example, a global Web 2.0 service that has rapidly become "the best way to share your presentations with the world".  It is hard to imagine that the kind of presentation sharing service we see in Slideshare today could have grown up around a set of institutional activities (however well coordinated they might have been) - the service works primarily because it is global in scale.  For similar reasons, social activity has built up around the presentations, both within the confines of the Slideshare service itself (tagging, favoriting, etc.) and beyond (by embedding presentations into other services).  As a result it has become a very compelling place to share presentations on the Web.

So what is the lesson here for institutions and institutional IT services?  I think they need to take note.  Whilst (in some cases) they may have the technical competence to build global-social social services, it is not typically part of their function to do so.  To put it bluntly, their business is to serve the institution, not to serve the world.  As a result, IT services have to begin seeing themselves as the enablers rather than the providers of such services.

This means more than simply providing the network pipe thru which the services are accessed.  There are functional requirements in the educational space that go beyond those catered for by external services directly - the need to preserve the scholarly record and comply with QAA requirements being two good examples.  I'm sure there are others.  I think there is an interesting debate to be had around what it means for institutional IT services to properly enable and support access to external Web 2.0 services.

I'll touch on this again in my third and final theme for the talk - the 'shared service' agenda.


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I wonder how much seed funding Slideshare got? Several million dollars?

Another point - consider blog posting on the intranet and the internet ... which one assists the learner mature? Which is the approach which is sustainable once they leave the university? With appropriate education and support - which is the one that will encourage them to consider best the most appropriate use of language (knowing the context in which they're sharing their views)? Which one will introduce them to the broadest spectrum of supporting and contrary views?

Social networking and the organisation is a really interesting thread. One that I'm chewing over.

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