John Naughton’s inaugural lecture last week reminded me of a paper I wrote about online communities Download distance_ho.doc (this is not a coincidence as some of the ideas in the paper were informed by a conversation I had with John once about the differences between broadcast media and the Net, and much of the knowledge of the net’s technical structure is derived from John’s book A Brief History of the Future). In it I argue that the key technological features of the internet are openness, decentralisation and robustness. These in turn became the social values of the internet also. If you want to know what technologies or approaches will succeed on the net then compare how well they score against these three features.
I go on to argue that online communities are therefore a natural end point in education. This part is maybe less so well argued, but I think the technology/social features part does carry some truth. The key point for higher education is in decentralisation. Higher education is all about centralisation. Universities acted as an information store, which students needed to come to in order to gain that knowledge. Now that information is decentralised this role is undermined. Of course it reveals what is in fact a more substantial role, and that is sensemaking of information. But in essence I think universities are based on a centralisation model and the next generation of students are accustomed to decentralisation. This raises big issues for universities which impact upon the content they provide, the technologies they use, the support they offer, the type of accreditation they approve and their partnerships with other institutions.
I also like this paper because its title (the distance from isolation) is from a Larkin poem, Talking in Bed. I like to think there aren’t that many Larkin/e-learning cross-overs. The paper itself was accepted for the journal Computers and Education (see next posting for a rant on this).