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:
- What if someone says something wrong and we are sued?
- 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.