These are my notes from the EDUCAUSE 2007 Annual Conference session, “Defining the Digital Commons: Abstraction of Enterprise Services and Policies Through the Use of a Unified Web-Based User Interface,” delivered by Mark McCahill (Architect for E-Learning and Collaborative Systems, Duke University) and Bob Price (Director of Academic Services, Duke University) in Seattle on October 24th, 2007. This was a fantastic session, my favorite of the conference. I knew I was going to like it when Mark played a little Steely Dan prior to the start. Most breaks between EDUCAUSE sessions are deathly quiet. They really need to do something to raise the energy level a bit.

A visual of a cave painting was used to kick off the session, emphasizing the notion that computers are used to tell stories, the authors of which may be unaware of the future value of their work. Mark mentioned that we are media sponges. We use the Web for cave painting, commenting on the paintings of others, and forming communities around the paintings that mean something to the collective. Mark and Bob presented what was essentially a conceptual map for a folksonomic repository that was less about the search engine and more about the social value of the learning commons as a context and a place to meet. Four important core services would be:

  • bit bucket storage
  • tags directory
  • access logs and usage stats
  • social association engine

Mark described his fantasy of creating a Marauder’s Map that students could use to see who was where and what they were doing (e.g., studying Physics in Krueger Library Second Floor). This reminded me of the MIT Random Hall Bathroom Server. They presented the NC State Virtual Computing Lab and Freebase as a sign of things to come and initiatives that capture many of the qualities that they were describing. Here, students assemble the applications and information they need to accomplish specific tasks. This also reminded me of Popfly, Microsoft’s mashup engine that provides an interesting interface for weaving data sources together to create something new.  

This combination of a flexible, virtual toolbox/repository with a “learning commons” is very appealing from an academic perspective. As I listened to this session, I wondered what this meant for our investment in SharePoint for our campus portal and small group collaboration needs. On one hand, SharePoint 2007 has some of the qualities that Mark and Bob described. It is an interesting mix of functionality that combines file handling and workflow with social interaction and teamwork. Most importantly, the basic control of SharePoint sites can be placed in the hands of faculty, staff, and students versus IT admins. On the other hand, it’s clear that SharePoint wasn’t built to support teaching and learning. Its very broad sweep within an enterprise is focused primarily on administrative applications. In addition, deep customization of SharePoint sites and the development of new “Web parts” is something that is beyond the reach and interest of most academic users and SharePoint isn’t really intended to be an authoring tool. Although there is a WYSIWYG HTML editor for posting brief text-based content, faculty and students still need to use other tools to create content to place into SharePoint sites.

Could SharePoint be the foundation for a campus learning commons? Possibly. The thing that concerns me the most about SharePoint and what I see as the major difference between SharePoint and the learning commons that Mark and Bob were describing is the same challenge that we have been facing with our learning management systems for years: the monolithic, proprietary, and relatively closed nature of the tool “traps” content and inhibits participation in the open sharing, flexibility, and innovation that is driving the Web 2.0, open/community source revolution. It is nice to see tools like Socialtext developing SharePoint connectors. Maybe that’s the answer. I would be very interested in collaborating with other SharePoint campuses to push the limits of the learning commons concept using SharePoint as a foundation, but integrating other open tools and resources. Any interest out there?