Continuing our debate around VLEs (which I’m enjoying anyway), Niall Sclater posts that one of the dangers of the small pieces approach is that we have no control over external sites, and he uses (my favourite web 2.0 site) Slideshare being down as an example.
Tony responds rather cheekily (he tags the post ‘baiting’) showing the OU site was down, to demonstrate that internally hosted systems are not immune from such dangers.
I would suggest that in a loosely coupled system your risk is spread from a user perspective – if Slideshare was down, that’s fine I’ll do the wiki activity, or look at the YouTube clips, or read the RSS feeds in Google Reader. There is an alternative activity I can be doing, but if your VLE goes down, you are stuffed since everything is in one place.
In general though, Niall is right, this is a concern (and one I mentioned in my original post). But it gets at something deeper I think than just about choice of hosting services – it’s about philosophies and attitudes. The almost universal reaction in all higher education institutions is to control things – be it systems, content, dialogue, roles, etc. And there is a good reason for doing this – universities have a duty of care, both pastoral and educational, to their students, and the best way to deliver on this is to control the environment.
Hence we have educational versions of tools, closed systems, selected readings, etc. And then we have web 2.0 which lets anyone do anything and then puts metrics and filters in place to help you find the good stuff. In order to engage in this world there is going to have to be a good deal of letting go of control – not only will that be hard to do, but it may have serious implications for students (and maybe, legally for universities – what if someone has a bad experience on an externally hosted site which you have sent them to – are you responsible?). I’m not arguing that letting go of control is necessarily better – I just think more and more of it will happen anyway, so we need to be able to handle it. I don’t think trying to control things more is a valid response though. This tension between control (and thus being able to assure education) and freedom (where bad things may happen) will be one of the key questions higher education faces in the next few years, and it’s far more complex than control= bad, freedom = good.