Leader: If you can't beat them, blog them

January 26, 2007

Universities are coming to terms with the internet, but its dizzying pace of change still presents them with one of their greatest challenges.

American institutions, in particular, are petrified by the anarchy of blogging and by the potential for damaging (and often inaccurate or misleading) items on sites such as YouTube. By the time they spot an offending item, untold numbers of potential students, corporate partners or research funders may have been influenced adversely. The right to reply - if it exists - is unlikely to be effective.

There are, nevertheless, countless opportunities for higher education in the new communications technologies. Forward-thinking academics are making podcasts of their lectures, virtual learning environments are de rigueur for the modern campus, and distance learning has been transformed. For traditional universities this may mean more competition, but their combined expertise should be equal to the challenge. Whether or not the threats outweigh the opportunities, academics and administrators are going to have to cope.

Two stories in this week's edition illustrate the different sides of the equation. Many academics will be alarmed by the simplistic but potentially influential picture of the contact hours offered to students painted by the "Will I See my Tutor?" website. But Warwick University is showing an understanding of the power of the internet, in particular among young people, by putting its own videos on YouTube. Warwick's films of research and community involvement will not be the most exciting part of YouTube for most teenagers, but they should be a valuable adjunct to conventional recruitment advertising. If nothing else, they will enable the university to "get their retaliation in first" when web surfers carry out a search.

What are universities to make of the interpretations of staffing statistics by the academics behind the tutoring website, however? The musings of "Dr Wismyt", the site's main contributor, are littered with spelling mistakes - for instance, on the subject of "extra ciriclua activities" at Loughborough University. Yet class sizes and contact hours are among the priorities in the National Student Survey and similar research. Applicants for places will not be well versed in the distinctions between teaching staff and those on research contracts, or even in the variations between departments at any university. But they may be swayed by sweeping statements based on data that the site admits to be inconsistent.

No doubt universities will take steps to correct the more extreme inaccuracies, but the internet is too vast to be constantly policed in this way. The number of blogs, for instance, is doubling every six months, with a total now in excess of 50 million. Like other institutions, universities will have to take the rough with the smooth. It may be a bumpy ride.

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