The Fall of the Wall: Beyond Walled Gardens in Higher Education

CCi (ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation) International Conference; Creating Value: Between Commerce and Commons, Wednesday 25 June to Friday 27 June 2008 at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre.

The Fall of the Wall: Beyond Walled Gardens in Higher Education

[This paper is based in part on a white paper co-authored with Mark Pesce entitled 'Out of the Garden: UNSW and its Web Discontents', written in November 2007.]

1. The explosive growth of knowledge in the 21st century has placed a unique set of pressures on many institutions, and in particular, on those institutions that have a specific charge to generate, analyze, sort and disseminate this ever-increasing wealth of information. While the public looks to universities as places where world’s-best practice in knowledge management is employed, these same universities are in danger of being overwhelmed not only by the increase in knowledge, but by the just-as-rapid multiplication in techniques for capturing, exploring, and distributing this knowledge. Universities must have a strategic plan for knowledge management: this is a core justification for their existence. The problem is, the plan’s not really working.

2. In the ideal IT world envisaged by administrative, academic, and IT staff at many Australian universities, the university’s web presence and web services should be part of a centrally managed repository. These services should be strictly gated and limited in access. They should be controlled, secure and hierarchically organised. This particular conceptualization is the by-product of another time when computing and network resources were both limited and expensive. Now that both are cheap and broadly available, universities have lost their “natural monopoly” on the provision of web services for their academic communities.

3. This is a familiar story in the so-called digital age. We see all around us how the internet, peer-to-peer and other networked technologies are developing profound challenges to the organization of media, information and knowledge. In simple terms, the user-centric web services commonly associated with terms such as Web 2.0, the semantic web, and the Read-Write Web are at the forefront of this change. Even if we filter out much of the hype surrounding these terms, the web is becoming more user-focused, collaborative, more ‘participatory’, and more dynamic. This participatory logic of networked media is also having a profound effect on the way we might think about the position of universities in terms of their general contribution to what Benkler calls ‘the wealth of networks’.

4. Many new social network services have very quickly been positioned in the marketplace as brands. At the same time, we could also argue that these new entities could be easily aligned with pedagogical principles of ‘learner centred’, ‘blended’ or ‘constructivist’ learning approaches, which emphasise the ways students operate in a community of peers. When students are encouraged to explore at their own pace, reflecting on their own discoveries as part of that process, there is enormous potential for them to learn in new ways. Utilising the multiple feedback channels available via social networking software and other simliar tools, universities can engage with students by entering into a dialogue with them about what they want to learn (and what they need to learn) in this fast paced media-world.

5. While this might be the case, universities have been slow to embrace the full social and collaborative strengths of the web, and to align themselves to the emerging practices of the 21st century. For the most part, universities still prefer to work within their “walled gardens” purpose-built by the institution. These are typically ‘push’ systems with strict protocols that disallow external access or control. Although disruptive, universities need to adopt the best practices of the social web in order to improve their internal processes, and to transform themselves into more outwards-facing teaching and research institutions.

6. As Chris Anderson puts it in The Long Tail, these developments contain the potential to free us from ‘the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator fare’ and establish in its place ‘a world of infinite variety.’ As the internet becomes more ubiquitous, it is reshaping the economics of media culture. It is reshaping the culture and economics of education in the same way. The flood of blogs, podcasts, video clips, and MP3s, most available for free, testifies to these changing economies. While universities struggle to keep their Vista and Blackboard and WebCT packages operational, the students and staff are climbing over the walls and becoming increasingly involved in the participatory media culture of the social web.

7. And so, higher education faces a challenge. It may not fully acknowledge it yet, but it does. And the challenge is this: when students have been accustomed to these very facilitative, usable, customisable, personalised and adaptive tools “both for learning and for socialising” why would they accept standardised, unintuitive, clumsy and out of date tools in the formal education they are paying for? This goes to the core of the cultural differences between the Web 2.0 environment and the traditional domain of higher education. Who needs a VLE or WebCT (or whatever proprietary software package the university demands that they use) when the open web and social software already provide that for you only better and for free? The question universities have to ask themselves is whether they are prepared to acknowledge this shift, and to embrace new strategies of adaptation instead of the usual resistance to rapid social and technological change.

8. Parallels between the music, film and entertainment industries in the digital disaggregation of delivery and platforms should serve as an equally loud wake-up call for those of us working in higher ed. Will universities go the way of vinyl and CD? I don’t believe so. But the message remains clear: we ignore the everyday social media practices of our constituents at our peril.

9. I want to suggest that centralised VLEs are not the answer to the ‘web 2.0 problem’ for education. This is because its software protocols embody principles of hierarchy, control, and centralisation instead of bottom-up, networked interconnectivity. Making the traditional classroom virtual won’t help educators understand the new challenges and opportunities they are now facing. By allowing user-centric web services to flow back into the university web systems, we will be able to build upon the increasing participation of the university community in the broader production (and critique) of knowledge.

10. So, what are the characteristics of web-native learners, and what tools do they want or need? What new learning opportunities ‘and risks’ are opened up by social networking and media sharing tools? And how might we reframe our ideas of learning, teaching and research in light of all this? In short, what would be the role of the university if many of its current services were disaggregated to specialist providers on the web?

11. These are difficult, complex questions to consider. Part of the answer is staring us in the face. If the university community is going outside for solutions, then we need to connect those practices and systems back to the institution. If we don’t, universities are in danger of cutting themselves off from the world-at-large. We are cutting ourselves off from potential students, research collaborators, and business partners. And we are missing out on the opportunity to widely promote ourselves outside of the walled gardens of educational institutions.

12. Although much of what I mention here can seem radical to some academics and administrators, the collaborative read-write web is already in broad daily use through the higher education community. Students scour Wikipedia when doing background research for an assignment. Wikipedia in fact, is still the outstanding example of a collaborative success story. Researchers maintain blogs and wikis, giving colleagues instant access to experimental results. Many people at universities spend much of their time online, trading links to media and information on every subject imaginable via email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and so on. We all know this. The social web is already a reality. It’s up to us, to make sure that we do everything we can to allow our constituents to redefine the university in the light of these new organizational structures and models.
Ross Harley, Brisbane, June 2008