Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Oxford University is a lame parent wearing clothes it bought from Forever 21.

In the face of the revolution caused by emergent technologies and the practices they enable, brick-and-mortar universities often come off as the perplexed parent who wants to seem cool: They know the kids are doing something interesting with their time, they don't know exactly what it is, but they figure if they can get in on it they'll score points.

In this case, as this Guardian article explains, traditional universities are considering how to integrate social media--include the most popular sites like Twitter and Facebook--into their learning environments. The goal behind this is not only to keep up with the times, but also to prepare learners for the great big social networking world just outside university gates. Academics are right to pursue this goal, though they won't succeed unless they can wipe the perplexity and fear off of their faces.

In many ways, as the Guardian piece points out, the potential for networking, collaboration, and collective problem-solving made possible by new media results in an ethos that jives nicely with that of academia at its finest. As education technologist Brian Kelly explains it, universities are aligned with the spirit of Web 2.0:
The social web is about openness and trust, which is a key part of what academic life is involved in, says Kelly. "Initially we did this in research, with open access work and making publications openly available, and now it's teaching and learning resources."

On the other hand, the internet offers a significant threat to the very cultural capital that makes universities essential: The practices that have emerged around new media technologies have resulted in a bottom-up approach to meaning-making. As the Guardian piece points out, "[t]here is a still a question over whether a well-respected blog is the same as having peer-reviewed research articles" and new cultural practices have emerged so quickly that norms are yet to develop. Kelly puts it this way,
"We've had no time to develop a culture. Everyone knows how to answer a telephone but it takes time for those conventions to come about, and there are no conventions for cyberspace."

What academics may consider drawbacks are, to many, just the everyday features of what media scholar Henry Jenkins has labeled a "participatory culture": Everyone with a computer and Internet access becomes a potential media outlet, and everyone gets to join in on deciding what's culturally valuable and meaningful. The barriers are low, mentorship opportunities are rampant, and everybody feels like they can contribute if they wish.

In participatory cultures, research no longer needs to be peer-reviewed before it's published; information becomes more valuable the more widely it spreads; and the groups that grow out of the use of new technologies work alongside of--and sometimes in resistance to--formal institutions. This flies in the face of traditional values espoused by formal universities, which make their bones on proving that the knowledge contained within their gates is better than the riff-raff that's out there. (For proof, see this article about the Guardian's ranking of UK universities, which relies on fairly traditional standards such as students' entrance exam scores, faculty/student ratio, and spending per pupil.)

Fortunately, all is not lost for the traditional university: There is still a role for formal education, even in a participatory culture--maybe especially in a participatory culture. Now more than ever, equipping students with the proficiencies and skills that enable ethical, responsible, and critical participation in new media is an essential element of a practical education.

For most of their existence, traditional universities have served as gate-keepers of knowledge: In order to gain access to the information kept behind their walls, you had to first get through the front gate. Young people who have grown up inside of a culture that makes most information available to most people, most of the time, are less and less willing to accept this elitist approach.

This doesn't mean, of course, that universities should drop admissions requirements. But it does mean new models are called for. Perhaps it's time to follow the approach of Open University, MIT's Open CourseWare System, and other universities that adhere to the principles of the open education movement--free exchange of ideas, educational materials, and pedagogies. Perhaps it's time to make the information made available to those who make it through the gates available to those who can't get through, as well.

I say "perhaps," but readers of this blog know that I really mean "for sure." As in "For sure it's time to follow the approach of universities that adhere to the principles of the open education movement." In a participatory culture, trying anything less is just...embarrassing.

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