Why Universities Shouldn’t Create “Something like YouTube” (Part Two)

Universite de Montreal is developing a new web strategy, they intend to

integrate web 2.0 features. They are thinking about letting students become

publishers, but they fear a teacher backlash. Is this fear reasonable? What

would be the worst case scenario?

When we create more open platforms, we destroy old monopolies of information. That can be a brutal blow for those who gain their self worth from their role as the dispersers of that information. So, yes, when you open it up to students to submit materials, teachers feel threatened. There are some legitimate concerns here, having to do with the credentializing of information and the liabilities of the university. For most of us, credibility on the web is situational: we are not so much assessing content as we are assessing the reputations of the sources of that content. We tend to put our greatest trusts in the institutions we would trust for information in the physical world. So, many people who sought information from Universite de Montreal or MIT will make a general judgment about the reputation of the institution and then apply it to all content which gets circulated.

For me, a lot of this has to do with how we frame the materials — as a reference work (which meets certain criteria of reliability, which many faculty members would be hard pressed to meet) or as a space for investigation, deliberation, and discussion (where there are ongoing conversations about the value of different content being circulated). Most academic web resources represent the former; Wikipedia and YouTube would be better understood as the latter. The need is to be clear about who is contributing the content and then you need to create a context where the community has the literacy practices and collective intelligence processes to take ownership over critically engaging with the materials being shared.

Everyone in the university would need to have a stake in insuring the integrity of the process and that means being highly critical and skeptical of anything that gets submitted, whether by a student or a teacher.

Can a platform upstage the learning process ? By that I mean that students

would get lost in a pile of information and would no longer be able to know

what to use ?

A platform certainly can upstage the learning process if by a platform you mean a technology. It is not at all unusual for faculty members to become enchanted

with one or another kind of hardware and not think through its pedagogical implications. We can see some of the ways universities have embraced Second Life as an example of this process. Second Life has some remarkable affordances which can support powerful new kinds of learning, but it’s also a challenging technology to learn how to use. There’s no point in using it for things that can be done just as easily through more traditional learning platforms and there’s no point in using it if it takes much longer to learn how to use the program than it is going to be possible to use the program for instruction. In

other words, we have to do a cost/benefit analysis and know why we are using this platform, why it is better than traditional means, what it allows us to do that we couldn’t do otherwise, what challenges it poses to learners, and so forth.

On the other hand, I would argue that a process or a community is less likely to upstage learning because for the most part, it comes with its own pedagogical logic and if you work within that logic, everything you do will ultimately contribute to learning. Again, the choice of the community needs to be aligned to the pedagogical goals, because the community will impose its own goals which will often be more deeply motivating.

Is there more value in sharing ( as with OpenCourseWare) or in mashing and

allowing expression ?

For me, they are two parts of the same process. When I hand you a printed book, which couldn’t be more fixed in its content and couldn’t be harder to reconfigure, you are still going to pay attention to only those parts that are of interest to you; I can’t determine whether you read the whole thing; I can’t determine what parts you cite in other works you write; and indeed, the book only becomes valuable when you can take out your yellow pen, mark up the passages that are meaningful to you, compare them with other books on your shelf, and use them as resources for your own explorations and ruminations.

So, why should we imagine that digital resources are any different? Once you share them, they are going to be sampled and remixed, if they are of any value to the person who receives them. That’s at the heart of the learning and research processes. So, the question isn’t whether to allow remixing; you can’t stop it and you really wouldn’t want to if you could. The question is whether to facilitate it or for that matter, whether to increase the visibility of what readers do with the content you provide. In the end, that boils down to the question of whether you want to be part of a conversation or whether you simply

want to publish.

In our participatory culture, though, keep in mind that publishing as an end unto itself is having diminishing return and people are much more likely to be drawn towards spaces which enable and support meaningful dialog. You can try to block it, if you wish, but you are also cutting yourself out from the marketplace of ideas, so what’s the point?

Should all this self-expression be recognized ? Where can we draw the line between « artistic self-expression » and bad work ?

The point is that I don’t draw the line; the community draws the line. A society where there is lots of bad work out there is ultimately more generative than one

which supports only excellent work. It provides points of entry for more people who are encouraged to try things, be bad, get feedback, and do better. A society which circulates only excellent work creates too strong a barrier to access and thus discourages most people from producing anything. The result is that we lack the diversity we need for collective decision making or shared cultural experiences.

So, the goal should never be to get rid of bad work; the goal should be to develop mechanisms which helps us to identify what we see as valuable or meaningful work according to our own criteria. There are a number of different mechanisms which allow us to do so: we can have gatekeepers who curate the materials and use their personal reputation to bestow recognition on work they consider valuable; we can have some kind of system of aggregation, such as Digg, where many people vote on what’s valuable and the “best” stuff rises to the top; we can have some system of collective deliberation in which we have ongoing debates about what constitutes good work and what works are

good. All of those mechanisms can be found at work in one or another site online.

We still don’t fully understand how these mechanisms work and what kinds of areas each works best. And universities would have a lot to contribute into research in these areas if they would free themselves from the burden of feeling like they can only support excellence.

A lot of bad work could tarnish the reputation of a university. How can it reconcile openness and the promotion of itself as a supplier of good knowledge?

It depends on what the university is trying to sanctify: is it seeking to guarantee the integrity of the product (in which case, every bit of content needs to be vetted) or the integrity of the process (in which case, the university is creating a space where people learn through vetting each other’s content.) Is the reputation of a university based on the fact that they gather together lots of people who know things or is it based on the fact that they create a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place?

What is the role of universities in this new « knowledge society » ?

Universities have gathered together many forms of expertise into one institution and they have provided the time and space for those expertise to be exercised

around compelling questions. They have developed processes by which questions can be asked and answers can be debated, where information can be produced, exchanged, and evaluated, and where expertise can be exchanged between many different minds. So, how do universities expand those functions and processes beyond their brick and mortar campuses? How do they open up these conversations to include a larger public who wish to continue learning beyond their undergraduate years or who wish to learn things that are not available to them at their local level? Universities can potentially play an enormous role here but it requires them to rethink their interface with their public and indeed, requires them to expand their understanding of what constitutes the constituency for higher learning.

Note: In response to the first installment of this interview, reader Chris Lott asks why the Creative Commons license for MIT’s Open Courseware initiative constitutes a “conservative” approach to Fair Use. I am not, in this case, concerned about reader’s making Fair Use of my materials. They are welcome to use them with attribution as far as I am concerned. But my problem is that as a media scholar, I need to be able to provide excerpts from other people’s media — especially corporate media — if my teaching materials and approaches are going to be accessible to people around the world who may not have ready access to American media. MIT’s position is that we have to clear rights for every piece of material that we include in our course materials, rather than asserting a broader understanding of Fair Use which would define such materials as being circulated for the purpose of critical commentary. I apply such a broader notion in my own blog but so far, the Open Courseware people will not accept this perspective and as a result, I’ve been locked out of contributing to this program. People often ask why not use materials under Creative Commons license and the problem is that the kinds of materials currently circulating under Creative Commons tends to be indie media, which is great, but in teaching media studies, I also have to deal with material by mainstream media and universities feel themselves vulnerable to the exagerated assertions of copy right by many corporate rights holders. I hope this further clarifies my position.

Comments

  1. Yes it does, but thank you, also, for an uncommon view of the educational institution as a formidable impediment to exploration.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. It makes much more sense in the context of the “timid” approach being MIT’s approach to their Open Course Ware not the CC license they use nor the Open Course Ware initiative in general, which itself makes no such restrictions or demands regarding copyright that I am aware of.

    The problem with trying to use already only CC licensed media for many purposes is clear.