Social media and academic freedom

I’ve been wondering for some time now about the relationship between educational technology and academic freedom. To what extent does technology actually mandate academic practice? Scholars who have looked at technology, such as David Noble, and Jack Simmons certainly see it as a threat, although it would be more accurate to describe their concerns as being related to the way that technology is used in universities.


As Noble, in Forces of Production (1984) has argued, technology is not an independent force that shapes us, rather it is itself shaped by social forces. He uses the example of the development of the machine tool industry to show how and why the technical development of that industry in the United States of America was determined by a combination of military requirements and the imperatives of capital. Which raises an interesting question for academics. How far are the technologies we use in learning and teaching determined by their social context. I’ve observed before that many of them aren’t really all that different from what went before. It may be true that in many disciplines, PowerPoint has largely replaced the blackboard, but it’s still, at bottom a visual aid. E-mail isn’t that different from the old system of memos and letters.  There is some potential for using web 2.0 tools and there are some interesting ideas out there, with a few academics getting students to edit live Wikipedia entries, for example. But equally, there are plenty of media stories about teachers (usually in schools) getting their fingers burned after posting intemperate messages on Facebook or similar sites. Although, quite who decides what might constitute an intemperate message is problematic. Clearly, insulting a named student or group of students in a public forum would be unprofessional, but blogging about a research finding that caused offence to some group or other raises different questions. If the research is sound, then surely it’s unprofessional NOT to blog about it, or at least to publish. The research question I’m slowly beginning to formulate here is whether, how, and to what extent using social technologies could ultimately compromise academic freedom. Clearly at this stage it’s rather ill-formed, but I’ll be using the blog to reflect on my thinking about this. If anyone else is interested in this, please do feel free to comment.

Technology and academic freedom

I’ve been invited to participate in a research project that will look at academic freedom in the United States of America, which is a fascinating topic, but before I jump in, I thought I’d try and link it with my previous project. (My doctoral thesis which I am about to submit. Fingers crossed!). That looked at models of educational development units and how they might fit into the contemporary university.

In my thesis, I noted in passing that there was some dissatisfaction among academic colleagues with what might be categorised as technical-rational interpretations of educational development, or if you prefer a certain impatience with attempts to reduce university teaching to a set of tips and techniques. Because my work involves supporting educational technology, and because I think technology tends to impose certain practices, or ways of working, I suspect instrumentalism is a route we can be very easily tempted along.

The question that I’m beginning to wonder about is whether the way we use technology could be a threat to academic freedom. I’m aware of the Edupunk movement, open source and web 2.0 of course, but corporate software does seem to continue to exercise a powerful hold over higher education. Most of the corporations offering services to universities appear to be relatively benign, (for now anyway!) but what started me thinking was an excellent introduction by Beshara Doumani to a collection of essays entitled “Academic Freedom after September 11”. He identified three threats to academic freedom – Government, private advocacy groups, and the privatisation of the university, this last in the sense that the benefit of higher education was perceived as shifting from the state and wider society, to the individual, the student as consumer.

Doumani was writing in 2004, at the height of the Bush administration’s paranoia about Islamic terrorism, and while government interference does have the potential to threaten academic freedom, for now I want to think about the other threats. Since the financial crisis of 2009, universities are being urged to broaden their income streams, which isn’t entirely unreasonable, but seems to me to run the risk of allowing funders to direct what is taught, or how it is taught. Drifting slightly off topic for a moment, would an evangelical church want to fund a hypothetical Darwin Research Institute for example?  More locally for Lincolnshire would the food industry be keen on funding a programme that taught students how to grow their own food?  (I’m not saying they wouldn’t, just that there are potential hostages to fortune).

Getting back to the point, if we persist in using corporate technology then we can only do what those corporations want us to do. One of those things (if the corporation has any sense) is likely to be to train students in using their products so they’ll take them into the workplace.  Incidentally we’re also committed to paying their bills, if their services are all we are able to use. Just to add to the fun we are often subjected to licensing agreements that mean we lose access to our data if we decide we no longer need the software.   We’re effectively locked in and therefore not free to do anything that these suppliers might one day disapprove of.  (I’m not saying that this is all some sort of conspiracy theory. It’s much more subtle than that! )

Now I might be talking myself out of a job here, (since one of my roles is to provide support for Blackboard users) but if we are serious about protecting academic freedom I think it well worth our while exploring, and researching the potential of alternative open source and web 2.0 technologies as well as advocating their use.  That can lead to accusations of self-indulgent hobbyism, but these things take time because we can’t ram these alternatives down our colleagues’ throats, or we get back to the technical-rational problem I talked about above. There’s also a risk that the seeds we plant don’t germinate, but to end on a positive note if we are going out to raise funds from the local community, perhaps we could sell our expertise to others. The exploitation of open source technology such as Mahara for E-portfolios , WordPress MU for building  web sites, for local businesses seems to me to be one source we could explore by assisting them in installing the software, providing training and consultancy for their staff and so on. Thus we’d be engaging with the community without compromising our own academic freedom.

Phew. What a long post!

Tenth Blackboard Users Conference Durham

Well, another Durham Blackboard users conference comes to an end, and as always there were a few thought provoking ideas. This years’ theme was “AntiSocial” or the way in which those of us responsible for promoting the use of virtual learning environments might make more use of some of the social networking software that is becoming more popular. I’m not going to indulge in a long multi-part blog post because a) it makes for a very dull post, and b) one of the most interesting points made in the conference was that students may still be working in a web 1.0 mentality. That is to say they want to take stuff that other people put up for them, rather than sharing their own stuff of the internet.  So in that spirit, here’s what I intend to do with this post.

 Firstly if you want to get a detailed account of who said what at the conference go to and search for #durbbu10. Many of those present (including your correspondent) posted tweets during each of the sessions, and there are some quite interesting points hidden in there although you do lose the narrative thread that a blog post might provide. (But you wouldn’t have read it, would you?)  Secondly and more conventionally I thought I’d pick out a few highlights and offer some thoughts on them. In the social spirit though, if you want to argue, (or agree), feel free to comment on the post.  

Highlight no. 1 came in Lindsay Jordan’s keynote in which she demonstrated how she had taught teenagers about the menstrual cycle through the medium of interpretative dance.  (You really had to be there!). The point for me was that as Lindsay pointed out, she could have just uploaded a set of diagrams on to a VLE, but this way she got the students involved. Of course dance isn’t a medium that readily transfers to Blackboard, but the point was the students could all play a part in the learning experience because they all had a small part in the dance. There are ways for this to be done in technological media. But as I’ve already implied they may not want that.

 Highlight no. 2 was from Katie Piatt of Brighton University. She started her session by distributing a collection of random Lego parts to each audience member.  However some members received a pre-packed bag of parts. Then we were all told to build a car. Of course the pre-packed bags contained four wheels, a base, some axles and bricks for a body. The rest of us came up with wonderfully creative solutions from the resources we had. Her argument was that if you give students pre-packed learning materials, then they’ll just build with what they’ve been given. If you give them a different selection of materials they’ll come up with something more creative using their own prior learning. Although there is still an element of selection because in fact the random selection I described wasn’t actually random. Everybody got at least two wheels for example, which I suspect was planned. Still the point was well made, that if you don’t do anything different with your students you won’t get anything different from them.  Reflecting on this later, it did occur to me though that if you wanted students to “make cars” then the pre-pack approach is probably the right one. Very few of the more imaginative creations would actually have moved. But that’s a very instrumental approach, and unlikely ever to lead to innovation.

 The implied question is should we stop giving students ‘pre-packed’ learning material? I don’t know the answer to that but I suspect that things like the NSS and in FE OFSTED inspections strongly militate against that kind of risk taking. This was borne out by my third and last highlight was a quotation from a student. “Why would I want to risk my degree by sharing what I know with other students?” Perhaps that should be a lowlight. It’s depressing enough that students believe that universities have a quota of first class honours degrees and that by helping one another they’ll spoil their own chances. But it also implies a possibility that we could give some form of credit for evidence of public sharing. I’m not sure that this could be in the form of academic credit because it doesn’t really speak to the students’ ability as a social worker, mathematician, classicist or whatever, and that’s what we’re certifying after all.  Clearly this needs a bit more thought.

 That’s probably enough for this topic. I’ll just take this opportunity to thank the team at Durham for their organisation of an excellent meeting, and look forward to returning next year.  And, do please add comments if you want to agree or disagree with me, or remind me of a highlight I’ve forgotten.

Effective practice in a digital age

Just finished reading the eponymous JISC report above, and didn’t want to let it go without making a few reflective notes.

I think what stands out for me is just how much technology is going to change HE over the next few years. It’s not exactly news that the old transmission model of learning has been on the ropes for a few years now (although I wonder how far that perception has spread outside educational circles.) The case studies featured in the report show how the influence of what I am calling “reputational assessment” (but only because I can’t think of a better phrase) is growing. I don’t think it’ll be enough to have a 2:1 or even a first in a few years time. Students will have to expose themselves (so to speak) on the web – I think they’ll be expected to do something like I’ve done with the lifestream and web 2.0 portfolio on this blog, but on a much bigger scale. If employers are already Googling potential candidates to assess their suitability for employment, then a surely a degree classification will have rather less predictive value than the student’s public portfolio.

That means that educational providers are really going to have to get their heads around the implications of providing resources, managing this kind of activity across diverse hardware platforms (There’s an interesting aside on p.43 of the report about the importance of choice of mobile phone ownership and tarriff is to students self perceptions.)

The Edgeless University

…is the title of a new report from Demos, (A UK “think tank”) which deals with how higher education is (or isn’t) responding to the growth of technological tools. Personally, I found it a little disappointing, in that much of it simply rehearses debates that the educational technology community has been having for some time. (I laughed out loud when I read the hackneyed phrase about “guide on the side, not sage on the stage” presented as a new idea – It must have been around for at least 25 years)

But, and it’s a big but,  it is good that somebody outside that community has noticed that there are examples of extremely good practice within the sector, and is drawing attention to them. I’d also agree with the report’s argument that simply imposing a technology on a current practice is unlikely to make much difference, and I was pleased to see the benefits of Open Access being so well supported in the report.

Where I’m less convinced by is the continuing discussion of research and teaching as though these were separate activities. While it is true that “research” is currently seen as a more productive career path for academic staff, I’m coming round to the view that teaching should be “research engaged”, that students learn as they work with their teachers in the discovery of knowledge. That (admittedly quite old) idea has all sorts of implications for curriculum delivery, assessment, quality assurance and enhancement, and yes, the use of technology. All of these things will need to be radically rethought, if Higher Education Institutions are to become genuinely edgeless.

I’m really at the beginning of my thoughts about this, so the report was a useful prod in the right direction.

WordPress as a Personal Learning Environment

A personal learning environment or PLE is a collection of tools that a learner can bring together in one place to suppor their learning. The point is that if you’re the learner, you choose which tools you prefer to use, rather than have them chosen for you by an institutional Virtual Learning Environment.

In so far as they are collections of tools PLEs have something in common with e-portfolios which I have blogged about before, although it’s probably more correct to see a portfolio as being part of a PLE.  Anyway, I’ve found the Social Homes plug-in for WordPress which is rather cool. I’ve added my to-do list, Google Calendar, my Delicious bookmarks and a public view of my Mahara portfolio to it, and am wondering how best to add a link to a personal content store of the documents I’m working on, and a Refworks bibliography.

Social Homes links to services, rather than documents, which means that you can make bits of your PLE public if the service offers public views (e.g. the Mahara Portfolio). Of course you can always protect private information behind the service password, so if you really feel you must write your doctoral thesis using Facebook apps, you probably could.  From a learning perspective though, what would be really cool would be if authorised users of your blog could be passed through to the bits of the services you wanted them to see.  (e.g. specified portfolio views in Mahara)

I’ll probably come back to this topic later, when I’ve had a look at incorporating some kind of lifestreaming software into the blog.


One of the things we do is look at various social bookmarking and web 2.0 sites that may have some potential for teaching and learning. Today it was the turn of Digg.   This is one of the major social bookmarking sites, and you quite often see “Digg this” on web sites. The idea is that people submit sites they find interesting, and the most popular ones are revealed on the home page. But the real strength is that you can build a network of “friends” (a bit like Facebook) and you all share your favourite sites. You can also comment on stories, videos and podcasts.

There are some obvious applications for this in education. It would be easy to get a class to  work together to create a critically reviewed network of sites on a particular topic. Digg also offers the oppoprtunity to “bury” sites with broken links, inaccurate information and so forth.  That way the site is kept up to date with reliable information. The point is it’s all user generated – the wisdom of crowds I suppose. I haven’t done much more than join this morning, but I hope to be back with reviews later when I’ve had the chance to use it in anger!

Todoist. A useful time management tool

I spent most of yesterday morning showing a colleague from the library round the various social networking sites, and while explaining about widgets that sites like netvibes and iGoogle use, I discovered todoist. ( This is effectively a little to do list manager, which rather than just providing a basic notepad requires you to think in terms of projects – you then add tasks to each project, and the dates on which you’re going to complete them. The iGoogle widget then shows you a calendar for the next few days with the things you have to do.

The downside is that the interface is a bit clunky (very clunky actually), and everytime you update something you have to refresh the page- At least in the iGoogle widget you do. But I do like the way it makes you think about a whole project and what you have to do to complete it. I’m still getting used to it and as I’ve so many different projects on the go, it’s quite a job in itsesf to break them down into manageable chunks.

Web 2.0 and universities

Interesting article in this mornings Guardian –,,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.