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Licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 to Dear Knucklehead

It seems to me, as an interested observer of the higher education landscape over more years than I care to think about, that we are reaching the point where it can be argued that the private sector is behaving increasingly in ways that universities should behave and some universities are increasingly behaving in ways that we expect profit motivated corporations to behave. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ways organisations encourage or discourage blogging and, by implication, the degree to which they trust the members of their organisation (employees for corporations and faculty/students for universities).

A few years ago many large companies, particularly IT companies, discovered the benefits of employee blogging and encouraged their employees to set up blogs. This was seen as a way of personalising what were perceived as monolithic enterprises and enabling greater interaction between the corporation and their customers. Today I can visit the blogs of the employees of Google, Microsoft and Oracle amongst many others. I can find out what they’re thinking, what they’re working on, I can ask questions and get feedback.

Here is a quote from the Oracle blogs home page:

“Welcome to the Oracle blogging community, where Oracle executives, employees, and non-employees alike exchange views about customer requirements and best practices for using Oracle and industry-standard technologies. This continuous feedback loop helps Oracle stay in touch with the needs of the overall community, so keep those comments coming!”

Now the question is why aren’t universities doing the same thing? To be fair, there are some very good examples of university blogging environments where numerous members of the university run a blog. One of the best known is the University of Mary Washington blogs site but even this runs from its own domain and not from the UMW main site. These sites, though, are the exception rather than the rule.

In fact what generally happens is that academic staff wishing to blog (and there are plenty of them) will generally use Edublogs, WordPress, Blogger, their own domain or some other third party service. So we end up with a situation where organisations whose principal resource is their staff are effectively encouraging those staff to publish outside of the university. What’s more the conversation that is part and parcel of blogging happens outside of the university. A university administrator ought to be horrified at this loss of intellectual capital. Strangely this doesn’t appear to be the case. As it happens, I believe that the ties between institutions and academic staff will become increasingly weak in future and faculty will increasingly be seen detached from the university context but that’s another post.

At several universities, that I am familiar with, blogging via the university web site is effectively discouraged unless it is delivered through an ‘official’ (read controlled) blogging channel. Inevitably this leads to a sanitised series of posts by various authors that will spin the best light on all concerned, especially the institution. As for a conversation, well that’s unlikely to occur, especially if comments are off which is often the case. Mind you this is no surprise as while nearly all universities claim to be ‘Web 2.0’ (yes I used the detested phrase) and run Twitter and FaceBook accounts, how many use those channels for anything other than broadcasting? Believe me, there’s not a lot of conversation going on.

The other alternative is that personal sites on a university server are shunted into a ghetto and plastered with warnings to the reader that whatever is said there is absolutely nothing to do with the university. That’s always encouraging isn’t it?

These are the restrictions that academic staff members face in trying to blog for their university but when we try and allow students to publish for the university it becomes an order of magnitude more difficult. This is a great shame because the reflective practice required to publish publically is, in my opinion, a valuable learning experience. Thankfully some universities such as Clemson University do trust their students and allow them to publish publically on the Clemson site. Again, they are the exception and not the rule.

So why don’t many universities encourage blogging by their staff and students on their own sites? Here are two reasons that get put forward:

  1. What if someone says something wrong and we are sued?
  2. We want to control the content experience for web site users.

The first reason has some legitimacy but it can be overcome through the development of policies, guidelines and training. Having said that, do we really want to be in a situation where an institution that is based on the discovery and sharing of knowledge is afraid to publish when, with a bit of effort and some will, it can actually be done with quite low risk.

The second reason comes from the command and control nature of twentieth century private corporations and has no place in a university. Unfortunately universities seem increasingly inclined to let this model of thinking dictate their policies.

I guess it all comes back to what we expect of universities in the 21st century. Are they widget factories for the knowledge economy or are they centres of learning and study that use the best available technology to distribute that learning? I do find it very strange that we have the single greatest mechanism for knowledge distribution in the history of mankind and yet our centres of learning, our universities, almost invariably discourage its use. Maybe I need to go and work for a corporation. I might get more trust there.

28 thoughts on “Blogging and trust in Universities

  1. Six years ago I was instructed by a superior to take down a particular link on my pages at /www-personal.[my uni name].edu.au/~[my name]. I looked into the ‘take down’ policy and found that my superiors could direct me to remove any content they disapproved of whenever they liked without giving a reason. So I deleted my ‘personal’ pages in toto, and when a year or so later they introduced /blog.[my uni name].edu.au/, I didn’t considering touching it with a bargepole.

    Reply
  2. Chris’s story sounds familiar. Three years ago I was instructed to delete entries on a private (wordpress) blog ‘in case the university is sued for breach of confidentiality’. When I resisted, I was threatened with expulsion. It was made a condition of my continuance that I agreed not to blog whilst still a (phd) student at that university. A year later, managed blogs were introduced as part of the administrative housekeeping system. Needless to say, I have kept my distance too.

    Reply
  3. Chris and Belle,
    Thank you for your candid comments which really show that the situation is worse than I actually depicted. I think my concern springs from the fact that it seems to me that many universities (particularly Australian ones) are forgetting what the purpose of the university is. All to often I see key policies regarding open publishing being handed over to what a friend of mine calls ‘corporate refugees’.

    The sad thing is that I see running no incompatibility between running an efficient university organisation along corporate lines and the principles of a university that include trust in the members of a university. Instead we seem to have veered into a twentieth century model of corporate control. At the same time even ultra corporations such as Oracle are encouraging dialog and openness.

    We live in strange times.

    Mark

    Reply
  4. Trusting academics, mmm, that’s an interesting concept, at least in terms of my experience at one university.

    The University in question has increasingly adopted the command-and-control approach you mentioned. In such an approach you can’t say anything that isn’t condoned by the institutional strategic plan, or at least the current interpretation of the strategic plan by some senior manager.

    An experience which did much to reinforce the opposite of the situation you describe

    > So we end up with a situation where organisations whose principal resource is their
    > staff are effectively encouraging those staff to publish outside of the university.

    Rather than being seen as the principal resource, academic staff were seen as the principal problem. Or, at best, seen as interchangeable parts of the machine that produced product (sorry students). A machine that is shaped by the strategic plan and its translation into KPIs for senior management.

    I have a nascent theory that Universities are about 10 years behind industry. e.g. Industry got burnt by large ERP implementation in the early 90s. Universities got burnt by large ERP implementations in the early 00s. Similar observation for BPR and QA/TQM. If “good” industry is engaging with social media now. Sometime around 2020 higher education should get it.

    I hope I’m wrong.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment David. I suspect you might be right about 2020. I also think that Australia is further down the corporate university route than other countries. We seem to have an odd mix in which we allow notions of academic freedom to prevent us from implementing quality improvement measures in learning and teaching at the same time as effectively discouraging freedom of academic publishing through university blogs. I sometimes suspect that in some ways one may be payback for the other. But then that would imply a level of strategic thinking about the subject which I think is entirely missing. Instead we get the disparate rulings of sections of dystopian and dysfunctional organisations.

      Reply
  5. Hi Mark,

    You may be interested in the site I set up for Murdoch University in 2009 while I was Emerging Technologies Specialist : http://blogs.murdoch.edu.au/ . I liaised with the PR to make sure we could use a number of different themes as chosen by user, with the legal department to ensure that people could easily apply a Creative Commons license to the work and with central IT to ensure that the authentication integrated with the university authentication system.

    More info about the set up here: http://librariansmatter.com/blog/2009/08/10/setting-up-a-wordpress-mu-blogging-platform-for-a-university-community/

    Lots of great questions raised in your post, but I am on my way to work so no time to engage further…

    Reply
  6. I always feel like I inhabit some kind of invisible space. Like Chris I don’t use our uni’s blog platform; I run my own domain. However, despite getting some fairly high-level publicity (my blog was featured in Campus Review a while back), no one at my institution has ever said anything about my blog, good or bad (and this is despite one of my top three posts criticising our VC’s actions on a particular issue, albeit indirectly). I’m curious if I’m just a time bomb waiting to go off, if the fact that I use my own domain offers some protection, or if it’s simply a head-in-the-sand issue where the powers that be simply have no idea that I blog.

    Either way, I’m not inclined to stop. Blogging has afforded me so many more career opportunities than any other form of traditional publishing/networking that I would be an idiot to stop, and institutions would be idiots to not encourage a practice that can potentially expand their influence a hundredfold. Oh wait…

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment Sarah. I do think that there is a head in the sand attitude among senior university administrators. I know that some VCs blog and some are even quite candid in their thoughts but then there seems to a big gap. I think it’s telling that I do not follow any blogs (apart from VC blogs) that are run off university web sites.

      Now you might say that’s because I follow educational technologists and early adopters etc etc and that’s true but surely someone, somewhere would be happy to write about these things from a university hosted site. What about one of the vaunted central learning and teaching groups at universities for example?

      Reply
  7. Last year I gave a paper on “Moving From Personal to Organisational Use of the Social Web” at the Online Information 2010 conference in London (see http://opus.bath.ac.uk/21275/). When I submitted the proposal I had envisaged giving advice to institutions which would address the concerns you’ve raised in your post. When I started writing the paper, however, I realised that I was worried that universities would force bloggers to published on an institutionally-approved and hosted platform. My paper therefore ended up giving advice on best practices for blogging on externally-hosted platforms, but addressing concerns (some of which may be legitimate) regarding publishing intellectual content outside the host institution.

    Reply
    • Hi Brian,

      Thank you for the comment. As it happens I agree with you and I would personally encourage academic staff to use their own blogging platform. I think the purpose of my post was to highlight the lack of trust that occurs between university administrators and their own staff. In this case it is through the attitude to institutional blogging.

      Cheers

      Mark

      Reply
  8. It is interesting that you mention Clemson. About two years ago, someone tweeting as part of her job was asked to stop tweeting under a “Clemson” account. So now she tweets under her own account. What is interesting the tweet that got the attention of a colleague was a link to a USDA page, a land grant partner.

    Sometimes the policies and activities at the lower level that hinder progress.

    I have question, too the same thing you are questioning in this post. Universities, particularly public universities, and their faculty are woefully behind. There are exceptions, of course. Those I often hold up as models.

    Interesting land-grants are the “people’s universities” and they and their faculty should be embracing public conversations. Instead many are scared to share or are hoarders. Others are worried about engaging with “non experts?

    Reply
    • Hi Anne,

      Thanks for the comment. That is bad news about the tweeter. I agree that policies and procedures are often enacted without due thought and often without a balanced understanding of the implications. This is a big problem and I suspect is due to bureaucratic nature of universities.

      What you say about land-grants is also interesting. I suspect that there is considerable uncertainty and a lack of confidence among the staff at these institutions. I see the same thing in other countries with similar types of institutions. I think institutional self confidence comes from the top and it takes a lot of courage to change institutional thinking to be much more open. Particularly when many of these universities model themselves on the elite universities.

      Reply
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  10. You work in a university right? So you must know how bad IT is there right? Their websites are shocking, they can’t get their heads around anything but microsoft, and even that is woeful, they can’t see how free and open wifi is beneficial to community engagement, copyright? Oh the list hours on and on and on..

    So let me get this right.. You think they should host blogs? Thank gods they don’t.

    Just ask them to create wordpress and blogger themes with the branding they youre really talking about, and leave it at that. It’s cheaper, more reliable, more flexible, more scalable, and light weight.

    Reply
    • Hi Leigh,

      Thanks for the comment. As I commented to Brian Kelly. The purpose of my post was to highlight the lack of trust that occurs between the university and the academics which is typified, in this case, by their unwillingness to provide an open blogging environment. As it happens I think academics should use external services or self host their blogs but then that is part of my belief that subject matter experts will become increasingly de-institutionalised in future. I believe this is a good thing. In this respect I suspect I am not that far from your thinking (who knows?). Having said that you do make some statements that I have to comment on:

      1. The IT is not as bad as you you say. I spent thirteen years being frustrated by university IT. It is only in the last 3 years working in a central IT organisation that I have seen just how complex and challenging university IT is. There is far more demand for services than there is a capability to supply. Consistent under funding of IT has left universities struggling to cope with rapidly changing application and infrastructure demands. Simultaneously the ever growing demand for new services means that users are consistently left waiting for those services. I am not saying that university IT services could not be better managed. I am sure there are many improvements that could be made. My university IT group recognises that and has developed a radical plan to improve. It has already made big steps.

      2. University IT is not fixated by Microsoft. Far from it at my university comparatively little runs on MS servers. I actually wish we ran more stuff on .NET because I think it would be more efficient. We do not run Exchange and are only just moving to AD. Believe me I wish we had both a long time ago. Staff have a choice of of PC or Mac and can run Linux if they wish. We have just moved to Google for email and cloud apps. There are very few universities that are MS centric.

      3. I agree with you about wi-fi. We should make it open for all for community use. If we had the money for the WAPs and the traffic then maybe we would.

      4. As for copyright and web sites, I agree with you.

      Both 3 and 4 are failures of university leadership to engage with the new openness that is rapidly coming (hopefully) to be the norm in many other walks of life. And that brings me back to my original point about openness and trust and the same leadership that fails in understanding open wifi and copyright fails to lead in academic blogging.

      Cheers

      Mark

      Reply
      • Hi Mark, I’m at a key board now, so there should be less typos and more care this time. Thanks for your extended response to my short hand comment. Re-reading previous comments, I can see that the points I tried to weigh in on, were already covered by Chris, Belle, David and Sarah.

        There seems to be agreement that the University Institutions don’t trust their academics. Just to add one more example to the pile, I was fired by UWS in 2005 for blogging. Not for anything I had actually written, but for the risk of it. Needless to say I disputed it, but damage done, we left to NZ in disgust.

        There might even be some agreement that the University Institutions generally, are behind the times going by David’s comment, your replies, and some other comments. In part, that backwardness is the reason for your post, so I think we might generally agree that Uni IT departments generally, for whatever reasons, are behind. It’s worse in the State Education departments from experience.

        My previous comment related to these points.

        I said their IT is bad, MS centric, anti social when it comes to connectivity and copyright, all as general examples of Uni IT being poor standard. You then became the apologist for them, explaining that there is “far more demand for services than there is a capability to supply.” I could agree with that being the reason for the poor standard, it results in the same in what I said, just that I say it without empathy. I should fix that.

        You also explained that IT is not fixated on MS. You’re no doubt right about that at your end, and I’ve often been corrected on this by people who refer to server software. My primary interest is at the consumer end, where the staff and students train and consult to a wide range of industries and sectors. Their’s is a desktop experience, and at the 3 universities I have worked (and 2 TAFEs) that experience is a MS experience. Before the so-called cloud services like Google Docs or MS Live came along to shake the reason, it was almost impossible to find anyone with any real knowledge, skills or critical insight for Open Office, GIMP, Blender, Scribus, InkScape, and the list of good desktop applications goes on. Operating Systems might have been the next step beyond applications, and most teachers have never seen a Linux distro run. Anyone who asks why such knowledge, skills and critical insight is needed in education, has clearly lost site of the role education might play in limiting socially defining toolsets. They have allowed market think to fog their minds, and uncritically submit to limiting tools on that basis. With more critical insight, perhaps we’d see more engagement and contributions from the university sector, on open source projects like applications development, or wikipedia.. I think its a cultural thing that we largely don’t, partly resulting in the IT related trade deficit in Australia, but am yet to establish that link (see my PhD publications eventually).

        We agree on free community wifi in educational organisations, and to do that we need to get off (or significantly change) AARNET and not do EduRoam and Access Grid. We agree on copyright and IP, but probably not that it’s a leadership problem. I think we too easily give over the practice of leadership to people who have little else but the title in their job description. I’d sooner see leadership retained in the hands of practitioners, and recognised and rewarded wherever it emerges, and so the leadership falls back to those who set up and implement the tools and systems (as it always has), and that has been very much in the hands of our IT units, until now.

        I suspect the decade late burning that David describes, will precipitate the radical scaling back of in-house IT services. Personally, I’d welcome the retraction to simply focus on the accounts and administration, and separate off the teaching and research practices, allowing them to purchase and manage their own computing devices, install and maintain their own software, and open up connectivity to the Internet wherever that is needed in the community. No more provision of email, websites, software, labs, lecture theaters or Internet. No suggestion that they will set up and run blogging platforms. Make steady steps to that all becoming the professional skills set of researchers and teachers, which the last 10 years of IT management has done little to nothing to help build up.

        Reply
        • Hi Leigh,

          Apologies for the delay in replying. Thanks for your great comment. I think we could have a really interesting discussion over several beers about these issues if we ever meet in person. There is so much in your comment that I could write for hours and I’m sure you could too. I will just say one thing about MS centric universities. I take your point but I’m also starting to see comments from students that say my own university is too Apple centric which I find ironic. One problem we have is providing access to a managed operating environment on which university supplied software can be provided. Our new buildings are being built without computer labs which gives us a problem. One thing that we are looking at is using Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) that will allow students with their own PC (running Windows or Linux) or Mac to run a Virtual Machine (VM) with the appropriate OS/software. The OS could be anything and there could be multiple VMs for different kinds of students. You could even take it to the stage where you customise a Linux distro as University OS. I’m not a great believer in the primacy of the institution but some people would like that.

          Suffice to say I think we are entering a period of absolute choice on the part of staff and students about the OS that they use. Anything browser based can be run from their native OS whilst specialised software can be run via VM. We’re putting lots of money into making it work.

          Cheers

          Mark

          Reply
  11. Hey Mark,
    I was just talking to a friend (who works in a TAFE) yesterday about this and reflecting on how this has been handled where I work. I think initially it was a bit of a challenge as I was the first employee to actively blog about stuff I was doing in a professional context, but do it on my personal website. It took a little discussion between me and Allan to work out the boundaries of what should and shouldn’t be said on there, but ultimately it benefits everyone provided, as you say, there is trust in the relationship. I think that’s really what it boils down to – whether it be Corporate, Government, University, whatever – how much is a culture of trust embedded into the psyche of the organisation. If the answer is ‘not much’ then I’m sure that there will be plenty of other places where similar symptoms will show.
    Also worth noting that when we finally re-vamp our corporate website then we will very probably have a blogging capability in there as well, and I’ll start posting stuff in there which I wouldn’t feel right posting on my own blog – for me, having both a personal, self hosted blog and an official work one will actually make life easier on the whole. And yes, I’m more than happy to have our internal IT group host it – I trust them :)
    Mark.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the reply Mark. Yours is an interesting case, working for a private company but dealing extensively with the education sector. I am glad that your employer sees the value of your blogging. I look forward to the new corporate site. I think it’s important to understand that companies like universities are simply collections of individuals and not monolithic entities. I think many companies have realised that this is beneficial to their business. Universities don’t seem to get it though. Shame.

      Reply
  12. Mark,
    Here is a development for you, University of Mary Washington;s entire site is now run in WordPress, locally hosted, we already have department sites/blogs already, and are currently working on individual sites/blogs for faculty and students as well as integrating the work done in UWM Blogs (mostly academic work) via RSS to umw.edu. And I would like to think it is a bold example of trust, and will increasingly become the rule rather than the exception.

    Reply
    • Hi Jim,

      That’s great news. The way you have implemented blogs at UMW should be an inspiration to all HEIs. I wish I was able to achieve the same sort of outcomes at my university.

      Cheers

      Mark

      Reply
  13. Sorry, here is the main WP university site: http://umw.edu (just unveiled this month) and here are some example of department blogs/sites:

    http://cas.umw.edu/art

    http://cas.umw.edu/hisp

    http://cas.umw.edu/historyamericanstudies

    As for not hosting in locally at our university, we do host umw.edu locally but choose to host umwblogs.org externally for all the reasons leigh listed above—but over time it has proven that we can bring some of the excitement, expertise, and investment in people back home, and for me that has been the real reward.

    Reply
  14. Pingback: UMW Blogs trusts and loves you! | bavatuesdays

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  16. Pingback: UMW Blogs Trusts and Loves You! — UMW Blogs

  17. Warwick Blogs at the University of Warwick, available since 2004 for any university member to publish anything they want. 163568 entries written, 219155 comments, 0 censorship, 0 problems – and giving an opportunity to many people to learn about digital publishing and widen their writing repetoire.

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