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From the Field

Slicing Academia Across the Grain: Building Virtual Organizations

Post "tipping point" (Malcolm Gladwell), academics are finding it possible to form virtual education organizations that would not have been possible a few years ago. A bunch of us are in the middle of forming one now, and we are finding that having an organizational Web presence, using Skype or other free conferencing apps, being able to assume the presence of smart phones among members, and depending on old reliable e-mail (or, egad, the POTS), we can actually form an international association without starting from a physical location.

There's a bit of Facebook in how virtual academic organizations can start. Facebook enables collegiality of a new sort. You can choose friends, professional friends, based on who people are friends with. This is not new, of course. Collegiality has long been based on personal connections. The difference now is the speed with which collegiality around certain research interests can spread, and how quickly that collegial reach can be nurtured into a virtual organization.

It is easier now, and costly only in terms of time, to reach a critical mass of colleagues who see the need for a new virtual organization. It may be that the members of the organization have mostly never met each other, but all have met (in person) at least one other person in the organization. The power of having a Web site where everyone can put their profile, of having a phone conferencing capability readily available, of getting a response from key people reliably and promptly, and of being able to distribute documents readily has reached a point now where it's reasonable to agree a new organization is needed one month and have the trappings of that organization ready to go 6 to 8 months later.

Once a virtual organization has started (that is, moneys or intellectual property have been exchanged), the virtual organization can move toward becoming a traditional organization.

In our case, Google Groups has been especially helpful. Skype also allows us to connect with each other either one-on-one or in a conference. And, of course, we use e-mail and landline phones. People who a year or two ago would have been reticent to immerse themselves in Web 2.0 technologies now seem matter-of-fact. Well, it's time, why not?

Virtual organizations do not always, in fact probably rarely, map onto existing organizations. So, just as we are all becoming data-sophisticated and realizing that computers allow us many different views ("slices") of the data, academia can be sliced in new ways as well. As new communities of interest develop in this changing environment, they can actually form into, first, a virtual organization, and then evolve into a new organization with meetings and a budget and a board of directors.

Web 2.0 is the promise of social mobility in this century, just as the automobile was in the last century. Web 2.0 allows us to gain stature in a new virtual organization. Just think how interesting it will be when this organization we are forming actually all meets for our first (non-virtual) conference!

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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