THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

October 27, 2011

How much does your university trust you? It may not time your lunch breaks, check that you're definitely "working from home" or stand over your shoulder to make sure you're not logging on to Facebook - but some argue that the dearth of blogging sites under an official university domain name speaks volumes.

Writing on his personal blog, Mark Smithers, senior manager for teaching and learning support at RMIT University in Melbourne, claims that at many institutions blogging is discouraged unless it is through a "controlled" channel. "We end up with a situation where organisations whose principal resource is their staff are effectively encouraging those staff to publish outside of the university," he writes.

He adds that university administrators "ought to be horrified at this loss of intellectual capital".

Two separate scenarios are presented by Mr Smithers as typical approaches to blogging by universities. The first is as a "sanitised series of posts by various authors that will spin the best light on all concerned, especially the institution". The second, where personal pages are allowed on university sites, is scarcely better, he writes, as they are often "shunted into a ghetto and plastered with warnings to the reader that whatever is said there is absolutely nothing to do with the university. That's always encouraging isn't it?"

Despite universities' increased engagement with social media, Mr Smithers believes that many institutions are not using the media in their intended fashion. He asks: "How many use those channels for anything other than broadcasting? Believe me, there's not a lot of conversation going on."

But not all universities are so risk averse. The University of Mary Washington in the US is singled out by Mr Smithers for praise, although he adds the caveat that UMW Blogs is not hosted under the university's official domain name (http://bit.ly/UMWblogs).

Clemson University Blogs is also commended by Mr Smithers; the US institution, unlike UMW, does have a blogging platform hosted on its own university website. However, only Clemson staff and faculty may create blogs.

A UK site that combines the spirit of Clemson and UMW's efforts is offered by the University of Warwick. Warwick Blogs, hosted on the university's own website, can be used by staff and students alike, and has a light-touch approach that allows conversations to blossom.

An example can be seen on the Research Exchange blog, which chronicles the student experience of various PhD candidates. One of the contributors, Bernadette Divall, writes of her feelings of terror on entering her final year.

"Part of my problem (a major part, actually) is that I get two very different messages from my two very different supervisors," she says. One "specialises in fear", whereas the other, she says, allows her to "just talk" and is rather more encouraging. She concludes that she's "very lucky...because they balance each other out perfectly". The piece has sparked some reminiscing, and some advice, from fellow students posting below it, unhindered by fear of draconian policies or censorship. Trust, it seems, can be found in abundance in the web portals of Warwick.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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