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Weighing In

The Social Web: Academic Zoning Rules

The social Web is an outward sign of an inner human social reality and drive. And it works well, surprisingly well. Good social sites can serve to remind you of friends you knew long ago or colleagues you've lost touch with. They support a new, or very old, human conversation, so we know what those in our "small town on the Web" are doing, how to get a hold of them from anywhere in the world, and remind you of their title or of their own group of colleagues -- as part of a conversation instead of a Web search.

This Web maps onto academia as if it was meant for us. Academia is mobile and widely distributed, but academic connections have always cut across distance and time.

Yet, as ideal and cool as the Social Web is, we in academia have been slow to use this version of the Web because it's not fully recognized as in fact "academic," and because the sites are designed for popular and business use, for obvious reasons, and not for the academic reasons we are used to. It can feel like having office hours at a desk on the sidewalk in Times Square.

But, clearly, academics are beginning to flood in to the popular Social Web sites to use them for their own purposes. But, what about for official institutional purposes?

The new Web is all about using data at multiple sites for a series of cascading functionalities. And, it's about connecting. What we need from our friends, the Web entrepreneurs and developers, is a way to partition off our uses from the maelstrom. Now, some sites do, and some don't.

If we need to collaborate with colleagues or students at a distance, for example, and want to use a Social Web site as one way to do that, we probably need to construct the site so it's not open to the world and not a personal networking site but a closed group collaborative site. These preferences run counter to the general business model of Social Web sites. I recently chose the option at one site to prevent anyone from joining our new site until I approved that person (thankfully this was an option). A popup asked me this question: "Are you sure you want to do this?" That sounded almost ominous. But, I chose that option and lightening did not strike.

I would ask those who are driving the design of new sites to consider "academic zoning rules." It's true that academy-industry partnerships are moving these zoning rules along in a number of prominent ways. But, zoning can't then strip away the value of the sites -- sequestering is not the answer. Instead, we need options for how we manage our own uses of the sites, resulting in the ability to apply our own zoning rules.

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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