Thursday, April 03, 2008

Opportunities vs. Risks of University Extension 2.0

In a previous post I talked about the need for universities with an interest in public engagement to embrace the Web 2.0 tools that invite participation and exchange of information. In this post I want to talk about what I see as the opportunities and risks of engaging the public with these tools.


Broadcasting incorrect or misleading information.
One of the major risks of using Web 2.0 tools is that wrong or incorrect information can easily be added or disseminated through a university-based website. People claiming to have information or expertise can use this as a place to spread misinformation and this may be some credence because it was found on a university-based website.

Lower quality presentation and production. Universities are concerned about their image and this is partly conveyed through the look and feel of their publications and websites. Creating more open ended websites, blogs, and other participatory formats will result in more typos, awkward sentences, and incomplete ideas. This may make the university look less professional and perhaps less authoritative.

Open access spaces can lead to vandalization. Anyone who has created a website is familiar with hackers and other vandals who try to find ways to add inappropriate content or disrupt the work or activities. Using Web 2.0 tools will create even more opportunities for disruptive online behaviors.

Liability due to inaccurate information. The university has concerns about being held liable for inaccurate information that may get posted on university servers that are open to the public.


Create a broader exchange of ideas and information.
By using Web 2.0 tools the university will open up a wider discussion about ideas and issues with the public than is possible through most other communication technologies. People who otherwise would have limited opportunities to engage in conversations about science, humanities and social issues would have a chance to interact with university faculty and students about these topics.

Address myths and inaccuracies. Although it is very possible that wrong or inaccurate information will be posted if universities adopt Web 2.0 tools for public engagement, this is actually a great way to address those issues and respond to ideas. This is an opportunity to teach and not a failure.

Making critical thinking public. To follow the idea above about dealing with inaccurate thinking, one of the best opportunities of Web 2.0 tool use by universities would be to make "critical thinking" about issues more public. Much of the web includes commentaries that are not thoughtful or don't illustrate reason, creating more thoughtful discussions online would enrich the web and foster more critical thinking and dialogue.


Overall, I think that the opportunities significantly outweigh the risks. Surely the work of faculty can deal with these challenges and our work will be enriched by our engagement with a broader public audience.

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