The Social Web in Higher Education

“Jay Collier, associate director for Dartmouth Computing Services and leader of Dartmouth’s Web Services group, has a personal Web page so compelling that we’re purposely saying nothing more in a bio about him, hoping that will incentivize you to click to it. I hope you’ll also click on Yours, Mine and Ours, a review of how the new tools of the social Web can be applied to an academic institution.”

Interview by Dan Forbush, president of ProfNet — 11/2005

FPR: What’s your simple definition of “Web 2.0,” and what is the essence of the new possibilities it opens in college and university PR?

Jay: Web 1.0 was, in essence, all about adding hypertext and some multimedia to print publishing. It represented the first-generation emergence of a new media, adding a few features to a familiar model.

Have you listened to early radio? A newspaper plus voices. Seen early television? Radio with pictures. Remember the early Web? A brochure or newsletter with links.

Web 2.0 comprises a new set of tools and techniques that move Internet communications toward the Social Web, a place where our interests and our relationships — both professional and personal — are supported virtually and fluidly. Thomas Vander Wal calls this the “Come to Me Web.”

Once you define who you are and who you trust, meaningful information arrives at your door step. It’s already happening. Take a close look at Bloglines, Flickr, and Delicious.

The result is that we don’t need as many gatekeepers to information as we used to. Higher education provides access to knowledge: you pay your tuition to access a professor, a library, and a research lab. More and more, Web 2.0 technologies will change the role of those intermediaries.

According to a 2002 report from the National Academies, the future University may be more and more like a coaching partner, and less like a delivery service, with an increased focus on participation, collaboration, and non-linear thinking. Students — connected ubiquitously via blogs, messaging, and wikis — will help define their own peer-to-peer learning systems. The Social Web could be a critical component of this new model.

FPR: What’s was your objective with the “Viewpoints” demonstration site you produced in early November? It included sources of information that were external to the institution. Do you feel that the information you made available to your audiences there was more relevant, more interesting, or more credible than information produced by Dartmouth itself?

Jay: The demo was simply intended as a Web-based demonstration for people who have not yet started using RSS newsreaders, and who didn’t know that there are numerous sources of information about our institution.

Simply presenting this information, however, does not imply it is more or less valuable than official sources, any more than including books from multiple publishers on a library shelf means some are better than others. The point here is that the Web offers access to diverse perspectives.

We will continue to scale our system with a variety of sources, and we will be creating instructions on how to create a customizable personal dashboard using free newsreaders, and how to load “sets” of related news feeds created by peers. We’re also interested in shared, reviewed bookmarks for communities of practice. For example, we’ve started using Delicious to support our Web Developers Group.

FPR: Your use of a Flickr group was interesting. Do you envision a massive repository of Dartmouth-related photos posted by students, alumni, faculty, etc?

Jay: Yes, that’s exactly what Flickr group pools are for. During the London bomb blasts, for example, the community pool provided an immediate source of images from London. When tagged with a Creative Commons license, pool photos are then available for reuse within specified guidelines. This could be yet another engaging view of our campus experience.

FPR: Have you given any thought to creating a Dartmouth wiki along the lines of what Case Western Reserve is doing?

Jay: Our group, Dartmouth Web Publishing, has been trying to stay on top of developments in Web communications for some time, but we haven’t had the resources to extend our services into new editorial environments. Sustaining the university Web is a priority, so we’re hesitant to take on something unless we can do it effectively. This is one reason why we are involved primarily in supporting deep content, rather than the main college pages.

Whereas installing a software application may be a trivial task, sustaining the experience and assuring that it is valuable to users is, well, a whole lot of work! And a blog or wiki or podcast with little meaningful activity may not be much better than any at all.

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