Can Universities Reclaim the Web Too?

Image credit: seven_city’s “reclaim the city”

In the chapter on “The Public Engagement as Collateral Damage” in Martin Weller‘s The Digital Scholar he talks about the fact that traffic to user-generated content on commercial sites is far greater than free, open content on higher education sites:

In terms of traffic to sites, the user-generated content sites have impressive statistics: more than 100 million monthly for YouTube, 4.3 million for Scribd and 1.75 million for Slideshare (figures from for July 2010). These dwarf the statistics for most higher education projects; for instance the most well-established OER site, MIT’s OpenCourseWare site (, has 200,000 visitors monthly, the OU’s OpenLearn 21,000 and the learning object repository MERLOT 17,000.

The argument being if you use commercial, user-generated sites like YouTube, SlideShare, Scribd, etc., the potential for your work to reach a wider audience is much greater. This is an idea I agree with (and have personally experienced through YouTube), but at the same time the lifespan of these sites is another question, one which D’Arcy Norman has been writing about intelligently since Posterous announced they are closing this April.

Even more problematic for me (again based on personal experience), is the fact that colleges and universities leave questions of fair use and copyright arbitration up to third party sites like YouTube when it comes to faculty and students critically examining media and sharing resources—something that remains an essential role of the academy. So, when I saw the numbers of higher ed sites like MIT’s Opencourseware, OpenLearn, and MERLOT I got to thinking that UMW Blogs has comparable stats to all of them on a monthly basis. Just this month we had  243,086 visits (177,069 of which were unique) and 478,462 pageviews. That’s coming out of a small, fairly obscure liberal arts college that is embracing the digital, networked, and open philosophy espoused in Weller’s book.

It got me thinking what institutions could do if they started approaching academic publishing platforms as collaborative, open spaces for user-generated content. What if educational institutions start reclaiming the web? If little Mary Washington can generate this kind of traffic, which is not that much less then SlideShare in the end, then what could all the public (and private for that matter) universities in Virginia do working together? I wonder if we might be approaching a moment where the vision of the digital, open, and connected Weller talks about can be supported and encouraged by educational institutions as a way of becoming hubs of open content.

What’s more, as we encourage faculty and students to take ownership of theses spaces and move away from share cropping on third party sites (a là Domain of One’s Own)—-universities should be managing sophisticated syndication networks that enable individuals to manage and control their own work but aggregates it intelligently for better search engine optimization, generative juxtaposition of content, and intelligent filtering and relational organization via tags. We have only just begun to explore the possibilities of what it would mean for institutions to own these resources and share them through free and open platforms! I AM SO FRIGGIN’ EXCITED!!!

But wait …. the rise of the corporate MOOC has rendered these pursuits passè—any sense of innovation around publishing on the web has gotten lost in the hype, and elite universities are dumping their content into an LMS on steroids in a vain pursuit for raw numbers that is anything but open. A deal with the devil, BlackBoard all over again. Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!

All that said, I remain encouraged by Stephen Downes’s assessment of a million flowers blooming in the wake of this wave of elite university MOOC madness, I’m all for optimism these days. And the fact that the MOOC crash will have served to establish open, online learning as a reality that is fundamental to every educational institution’s mission from here on out might very well be the case. And if so, the approach outlined above is just a damn good head start  😉

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10 Responses to Can Universities Reclaim the Web Too?

  1. Brian says:

    Preach it, brother. This post is well-timed, as tomorrow we are having an event for research projects here at TRU focused on discussing publishing and collaboration platforms. As it happens, we’ve asked Martin to join us for a short virtual visit, and today I mentioned to him that I thought the points he made in “Public Engagement as Collateral Damage” were especially relevant.

    I’ve also been charged with presenting on MOOCs to a couple highly-positioned committees here, and I’ve been mulling how to make some similar arguments.

    One, in the world of “digital capitalism”, profits tend to collect with the owners of the online platform (Google, iTunes, et al). The content producers get a small fraction of what they used to earn, and the previous middle-process agents tend to be disrupted out of business. This argument was made by J Zevin:

    What has happened in one industry after another is that it has become standard practice to tell people who create anything of aesthetic or intellectual value that they are going to have to be cool with getting paid little or nothing for their work while the people who develop the closed platforms used to “share” what they produce burn through a few rounds of VC money figuring out how to monetize their users. So this summer, I read about Mark Zuckerberg refinancing his multimillion dollar mortgage at 1% interest and then about how the members of Grizzly Bear contemplated whether they would be able to afford health insurance.

    Pretty much aligns with what Siemens et al argue here:

    The rush to hand over our business to other platforms would be easier to understand if we didn’t have alternatives. And maybe this stuff is getting too big for small institutions to handle on their own (though the example of UMW might suggest otherwise). I applaud that you are doing in VA — we need to do more to pool resources and capacity.

  2. I couldn’t agree more Jim. The big problem that has to be overcome is that many universities are terrified of openness and have outsourced their web and social media to people that view universities as corporations rather than as educational and research institutions. Their preference is to have complete control over all publicly available content. This of course just stifles innovation and goes against the fundamental idea of the university. UMW seems to be an enlightened exception.

  3. nobody’s ever accused me of writing intelligently.

    working on some ideas for an edtech innovation/incubation proposal, which will be highly inspired by stuff like this. crossing things. you know. stuff.

  4. Melanie S says:

    Something that gets lost is overlap. Many videos on educational or NGO sites are also posted onto youtube, for many reasons, including ease of availability, memory space, search index benefits, universal access, etc. Who ends up owning those? Is it like a co-ownership? Or could the NGO be seen as taking advantage of youtube’s penetration for its own use?

  5. Reverend says:

    What I like about that J Zevin article is it challenges the complacent vision in the article published today in Wired that basically argues Higher Ed has recognized and dealt with the disruption. Have they? Really? They have outsourced that recognition which…

    ….gets to your point about fear and educational institutions. I think part of that fear has been born of an imagined reality that has come true. Adjunct work force, robot graders, outsourcing professors, etc. The difficultly in all this is faculty are not off the hook here, they have a responsibility in this, and when you have huge schools with reputations on the line the too big to fail montra begins to rob you of your ability to experiment. Schools like Penn State, who have done more for edtech than most, even find themselves running a Coursera MOOC which is insane to me. The rhetoric is crazy, and I can;t help the constant shrill screams around the edtech blogosphere dont help, I feel complicit in the mess we are in, and UMW isn;t that enlightened if we find ourselves on an island very soon. But hope springs eternal in the canine breast.

    I await your every move, I have always loved you. You made the bava. Your recent posts have been awesome on this stuff, and your project reclaim an inspiration. You are right!

    The issue of space for video is real, and I don’t want to downplay the value of that service. But the Internet Archive also streams media, and how cool would it be if NGOs and nonprofits started making this part of their process of archiving. I see the value of using YouTube for marketing, I just get worried it becomes the default option, and when we are dealing with thorny issues of copyright and cultural critique they have the final say. Never a good thing when you are dealing with a behemoth advertising company.

    I love that NGOs take advantage of YouTUbe, I just hope they have it somewhere else for the long haul as well.

    That said, the worst trend I see on YouTUbe apart from everything else is how pervasive ads are for so much crap and how similar it is becoming to the worst of television. I wish universities, NGOs, and non-profits could imagine alternatives together. [cue John Lennon’s utopian theme song 😉 ]

  6. Bryan says:

    Time for Todd Conaway’s haircut and some hippie pants, Jim. Thanks for the post, the points and the links. Another example of great work you’ve done to help K12 reclaim the web (around here, anyways).

    Yours in comfortable footwear,


  7. Reverend says:


    You;ve been doing that work all by yourself, the Talons work on the radio, in the blogs, and beyond is nothing short of amazing. And that’s all you! Philosophy radio was brilliant last semester.

  8. Jim, you have restarted my engines. Also, your point of sharing among universities in the web space has been on my mind a LOT lately. Thank you so much for this inspiration!

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