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November 5, 2004
fear and loathing in the academy
Last month, I moderated a workshop on “social software in the academy” at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication. The attendees were primarily Annenberg faculty and graduate students, along with a few industry representatives and some academics from other institutions who had experience implementing social software tools (weblogs and wikis, primarily) in classroom contexts.
One of the topics that we didn’t have an opportunity to explore in as much details as I would have liked was the issue of power, control, and authority in higher education, and the destabilizing effect that social computing tools can have in these domains.
Then today, via Heather James, I found this disturbing post (and I really hope I’m not putting him at risk by drawing attention to it):
Anyway, the University I work for employs one of the two big ‘Courseware Management Systems’ as it’s central teaching and learning technology. It may surprise some people that I’m actually pretty cool with this. Over the last few weeks I’ve interviewed over 90 students and they love it, it’s great for lecture notes, talking to the lecturer / tutors and getting extra information & links.
However, there are lots of things I believe it doesn’t do so well, such as facilitate effective communication (see my paper of a bit back) . And several that it doesn’t do at all, such as allow people to collaboratively create documents, chat using IM, email etc. So, as part of my research interests, working entirely through 3rd party software & hosting providers and mostly on my own time I’ve been working with several academics investigating the uses of wikis, weblogs and other technologies in educational contexts. With this CMS as the main, focal, authenticated important area which leads to these.
Last Tuesday I received a memorandum from a manager cc’d by am exec. director instructing me to cease supporting and promoting weblogging, wikis or any other technology not officially supported by the University. The basic reason given being that I have, anecdotally, not used the CMS (this isn’t true, I always use it) and that ‘commentary’ on the issue of CMSs (quoted I think from this blog or another I set up for a course) is unacceptable. A set-up for disciplinary action should I not follow instructions.
So I’m gutted. I’m not going to go into the arguments here, I guess that’s not appropriate at the moment, but I am going to reply internally and in essence beg that as part of my academic research agenda and in the best interests of the University I be allowed to continue my work.
I’d like to say that I’m shocked, but I’m not. I am, however, surprised that we haven’t seen more stories like this.
At my institution, administration has not tried to shut down new technologies for pedagogy—in fact, we’ve just signed a site license for MovableType, and I know of several professors beginning to use wikis in the classroom. But at the same time, I had to fight my own senior colleagues last year on the issue of whether faculty should be allowed to bring their laptops to meetings—the sense was that the growing use of backchannel was “unfair” and/or “rude” and had to be stopped. (It wasn’t, but not for their lack of trying.)
We can’t pretend that these tools are neutral additions to the academic environment. Wikis, for example, have a powerfully destabilizing effect on voice and authority, two things that have traditionally been under the control of instructors in higher ed. Ubiquitous networking and portable devices provide a backchannel environment that changes discussion in the classroom in a profound way. I’m not preaching technological determinism here—simply saying that we need to be aware of the destabilizing power of the tools, and to begin to address those effects directly in our thinking and writing about educational technology.
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