Social Software and Academia – Conflicted views

I gave a talk at the Common Solutions Group meeting on Social Software, Web2.0 and Folksonomies a couple of weeks ago. What followed was a very interesting discussion about the implications, possibilities and difficulties in dealing with social software in an academic (or enterprise setting).

On one side of the discussion where issues about what is lost if you bring the social software inside of the firewall. Bob Morgan of University of Washington pointed out that you need critical mass for much of the magic of social software to work. You need many people participating with overlapping interests to form virtual communities. You multiple people to tag the same object to build a meaningful folksonomy. Would you reach critical mass if the population was limited to the enterprise or do you need to be sharing in the wide world for the magic to occur?

An example that I used was Chemical Engineering students using social software out in the world might discover other students at another university. The two groups might work together and learn more both about their projects that the world at large. These forces tend say that we should just use the world-at-large suite of tools.

On the other side is the fact that these systems are out of the control of the university but may be considered by some (especially parents of students) to be under the control of the university. I mentioned a case of an instructor who is using a Wiki on their personal web site for instructional purposes. Students need to go to this site. They may need to participate. This leads to institutional business being conducted at a site that is completely out of the control and governance of the institution. It also leads to institutional information – course content and possibly student performance data (e.g. test data, quizzes and homework data) – being de facto outsourced to an untrusted partner. Who knows what the ISP will do with this information?

The hot discussions around MySpace, Facebook et al show the depth of concern about student privacy and safety and the concerns about the belief that these third party sites are somehow blessed by the University.

Adding to the complexity of these issues is the fact that it is so easy to set-up and use a lot of the Web2.0 / Social Software tools that are out there. You can get a blog set up and running in a couple of minutes. My personal blog is run on Dreamhost. They have one click installs for a variety of software. It would be easy for me to set up blogs, wikis, bulletin boards and galleries for a class. It would take about 15 minutes – tops.

Going back to the earlier example of the faculty member and their wiki – they used their personal web site because their institution doesn’t have any support or offerings for doing wikis in house. Any barriers that the institution erects (including charges) will lead to outsourced solutions. In house solutions may not work as well as the wide world solutions but the institution is mandated to protect student privacy and security. The institution is also legally bound to keep records of performance and it has an interest in keeping an archive of instructional materials.

Is there a balance where students participate in the wide world of social software in a safe and educational way?