Fear and Higher Ed Web

Alan Levine inspires as always when he blogged yesterday about the default attitude about privacy on the web in higher education. It’s easy to point to FERPA, copyright, and intellectual property concerns and their role in the development of the traditional authenticated LMS environment. But, there are other concerns that universities have with opening things up, and we have faced them quite boldly at UMW on multiple fronts.

Since before 2001, our web policy has had a few interesting passages in it, mostly related to clarifying the bright line between “official” and “non-official” websites:

“The University of Mary Washington assumes editorial responsibility for official University Web sites and official UMW on-line resources, which are defined as the official Web pages or on-line materials of UMW departments, divisions and other units. For these sites and resources, UMW is the content provider and not a content-neutral “Internet Service Provider,” or ISP. You may also find within the UMW domain — signified by the address “umw.edu” or within the range of Internet protocol addresses assigned to the University — Web sites or on-line materials over which the University has no editorial responsibility or control. Such sites include but are not limited to the Web pages or other on-line materials of individual faculty members or students, individual class sites and materials, and the Web pages or on-line materials of student organizations and other organizations not formally a part of the University. For these sites and materials, UMW is a content-neutral ISP.”

This is a perfectly normal and accepted type of policy on any higher ed website. The University is both protecting what is considered official messages AND protecting the first amendment rights of students and faculty. Like may policies, this does not exist to explain so much as to prevent legal action against the University.

The above is much easier to enforce when there is an LMS involved. Once UMW Blogs came online, and the website began to openly link to it, the game changed. Although the letter of the policy is still being followed, the spirit of it — to draw a bright line between official and non-official communications — becomes harder to enforce. How can a university celebrate and share what can be controversial academic debate in the context of its public communications and still maintain control of the message?

I was part of a presentation to the UMW Cabinet with Jim Groom addressing the fear of potential disaster should a student post something untoward. Jim made the argument that, for every possible “f-bomb” that is posted, there are thousands of great ideas that are shared every day online, and showcase the depth of the academic conversation at UMW. He was asking them to take a gamble, and they have.

I do believe that this fear of exposure of possible offending language — or (gasp!) bad grammar — on the part of those managing the public message is a contributing factor to institutional desire to hide academic conversation within authenticated environments. Once the classroom is exposed to the web, it’s in the ether and the bright line between official and non-official seems parochial at best. At worst, it’s a technique to avoid conversation about more complicated issues regarding free speech and what makes a university different from a corporation. If we are peddling the development of free thought and critical thinking, why are we so afraid of exposing just what it is we hope to foster in our students?

I leave you with a video clip that I’ve used in presentations in the last couple of years. It’s a favorite metaphor of mine: the university public website as the ridiculous freestanding tollbooth that anyone can circumvent if they just open their eyes.

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