Jim Groom has a Bavalicious post with musings on where the web went wrong in higher ed, and I highly recommend you read it, as well as some very informed and thoughtful responses in the comments. I am posting an expanded version of my own comment here.
Pat Lockley suggests a less sinister rationale for the existence of the Learning Management System, essentially that it serves as a space for people uncomfortable with what he terms the “extrovertweb” of open platforms.
There’s something to that, there is no question that fear and anxiety play a huge role in discomfort with the open web in higher ed. But his point, perhaps because Jim frames the discussion in an exploration of the historic roots of the open web, took me back to the very first wiki we started at UBC. It was an instance of UseMod, a flavour of the original wikis created by Ward Cunningham. No passwords, no IDs required, almost no structure of any kind. It was deliriously anarchic. Pat’s notion of an introverted web reminded of an amazing piece of anonymous writing that appeared on that wiki one day:
I like writing. But sometimes, a la Peter DeVries, I can’t stand the paperwork. After a few hours of writing, I start to notice the fibre of the paper and remember that once upon a time, the page was a nothing but solid, living wood. Then my pen gets heavy, as if stuck in sap, carving gnarled, knotted language into an uncooperative medium. The page transforms into one gigantic block, though not the kind of block used for building houses for stuffed animals or castles for imaginary friends. It’s not a fun block, writer’s block, because it lets you build only by its absence, never by its presence.
Word processors don’t make a difference. Don’t believe me? Try ’em. You will. The problem with word processors is that they are simply paper projected onto a screen. When we type a Word document, it is usually with the intention of printing it onto paper at some point. The Block gets in there, scans itself, downloads your document. E-Blocks. Watch out. Carving words into a screen is only slightly easier than carving them in blood on your arm.
So I wiki. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Sure, people might read it, but it is electronic, unreliable, ethereal. It is something I don’t entirely understand. But what I like, what I really enjoy about wiki writing, is that paper never gets the chance to solidify against me.
Something about that notion of the wiki space resisting “solidification” resonated very deeply with me. And that it was posted in a place that was itself so fluid and free just seemed almost poetically perfect.
“Why wiki?” was just one of the expressions I came across regularly on that platform that spoke to new and liberating possibilities. Another anonymous page outlined the profound implications of the wiki space, making “teaching and learning collaborative not only as a process but as the product as well” and “teachers out of the students and conversely students out of the teachers”, so powerful that it “will force educators to reinvent” what they do. With the benefit of historical hindsight, maybe not so powerful as that.
Because of the wide-open nature of that original wiki space, I estimate that two-thirds of the activity was from outside UBC, and about half of that had little to do with formal education. Yet I never once had to remove writing that was hateful, pornographic, or illegal. I was personally delighted to be thinking I was doing some small thing to foster an information commons, although I had to disguise what was happening to some extent from university people who were disturbed by that possibility. I vividly recall when I had to defend the stated orientation of the site from an anonymous contributor who thought it was too explicitly defined as a UBC space. Damn, I was loving my job that day.
It’s hard to express how excited I was by the possibilities of the open web by these expressions. I had helped to create a space, but it was very much out of my control and as a result amazing and unpredictable things were constantly happening. I’m still chasing that buzz. As with many addictions, the buzz seems progressively less intense and intoxicating. And one must endure increasingly difficult and at times humiliating circumstance to catch it.