Web 2.0 and universities

Interesting article in this mornings Guardian – http://education.guardian.co.uk/link/story/0,,2279249,00.html

Raises some questions about how universities might manage Web 2.0 applications.  For example, how, exactly, do you manage student assessments in Second Life? That’s an extreme example of course,but it makes the point well enough. I don’t think that this is entirely a technological issue though, it’s more about the problem of individuals innovating.

 Sticking with the Second Life example, if I was a history lecturer, I could build a sim representing (say) the Tudor court, and get the students to conduct role plays where they acted out the various power plays and assess their understanding of the relative power of the church, king, aristocracy and so on by recording their contributions in chat logs. Ok, that’s ridiculously ambitious, but technically possible. The point is though that it isn’t really sustainable. If I moved to another institution could I repeat it with other cohorts. More important, how would the students build on that type of learning experience? How would external examiners review it? How would second marking be dealt with?  My point is that innovation has to be accomodated within a quite complex institutional framework. (And I haven’t even mentioned the issues in running SL over a university LAN!)

Reading between the lines there’s a larger point too in the article, which is about separating the technology from the activities it is being used for.  I quote “One institution reported three examples of serious problems in one year involving students’ use of the new technology including the victim of a student scuffle using Facebook to identify the address of his attacker, and getting his revenge.”  Elsewhere in the media there have been stories about Facebook being used by dodgy loan companies to target vulnerable people. What’s interesting about these stories is that Facebook is cast as the villain, and not the people who are misusing it. I don’t remember anyone excoriating Gutenberg for the publication of Mein Kampf!

I guess we shouldn’t get too hung up on individual technologies – let’s face it, when I was an undergraduate, I used a fountain pen for creating my assessments and a wooden drop box outside the lecturer’s office for submitting them.  Those were far from perfect technologies (especially given my handwriting!)  But we’ve moved on, and we’ll probably move on from where we are now. So, I’m suggesting it doesn’t make sense to ignore a particular technology because it’s imperfect, but I do think we need to think about making it easier to experiment with them.