Friday, November 27, 2009

Tools in library and academic toolboxes: community, collaboration and openness

Last month, I had the pleasure of doing a talk at the Association for Consortium Leadership conference, held in Chicago. I was asked to talk about the future of academic consortia from my point of view as a commercial provider of software into consortia environments. (Note: In many ways my talk was also applicable to library consortia and I’ve modified this post to reflect that).

In the talk, I focused on the need for education (and libraries) to rethink both the substance and form that they are taking today and how they might, alternatively, deliver their offerings to people. In making the case for that change, I started by showing the audience some websites where they could see large and open web-based communities at work, sharing workloads, performing group-thinking and collaboration in order to provide content, answers to problems, even educational content and courses. These included:

1. Dell’s IdeaStorm. Here is a site that allows users to share ideas and collaborate with one another in suggesting how Dell could develop new and improved products or services. The user’s can vote ideas up or down. Fascinatingly, the stats show that customers have: contributed 13,052 ideas, promoted 701,106 times and posted 87,985 comments. Dell has actually implemented 389 of the ideas which may not seem like a lot, but it was in essence, 389 ideas that came from outside the company and at no cost to them.

2. Mechanical Turk by Amazon. A site where you have access to a global, on-demand, 24 x 7 workforce. Organizations can get thousands of tasks completed; sometimes in minutes and they pay only when they're satisfied with the results.

3. Virtual Tourist. This is a worldwide travel community where travelers and locals share travel advice and experiences. Every tip on is linked to a member’s profile so you can learn more about each member—their age, hometown, travel interests, where they’ve been, hobbies, even what they look like—and then read about more of their travel experiences.

4. Prosper. This is one of the largest people-to-people lending marketplaces with over 860,000 members and over $180,000,000 in loans funded on Prosper. Borrowers can list loan requests between $1,000 and $25,000 on Prosper. They set the maximum rate they are willing to pay an investor for the loan, and tell their story. People and institutional investors register on Prosper as lenders, then set their minimum interest rates, and bid in increments of $25 to $25,000 on loan listings they select. Prosper handles all on-going loan administration tasks including loan repayment and collections on behalf of the matched borrowers and investors.

5. Askville. A site where people get answers from everyday people. 55,000 active Guides throughout the country - with thousands available online at any time. It now has more than a million users and has answered more than 27 million queries since it launched its revolutionary mobile answers service in January. A key difference here is that people who answer are rated as guides.

6. Academic Earth. Here users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars.

7. World Digital Library. WDL partners are mainly libraries, archives, or other institutions that have collections of cultural content that they contribute to the WDL. The principal objectives of the WDL are to:
a. Promote international and intercultural understanding;
b. Expand the volume and variety of cultural content on the Internet;
c. Provide resources for educators, scholars, and general audiences;
d. Build capacity in partner institutions to narrow the digital divide within and between countries.

What is really important about each of those sites is what they’re about at the core; collaboration, community and openness. They show us what is possible when you assemble a large community via the web and provide both a common need and a means with which to address it. These sites show what is ours to tap and use in both academia and in libraries. If we do so, I believe it shows the potential of a powerful tool to use in transforming education, educational consortiums, libraries and library consortia.

Think about how we could apply what those sites show to our environments. To start, we should make education and knowledge on subject far more granular in structure. In today’s environment, we frequently encounter new concepts, ideas or terminology and we need short and quick background and information from a recognized and authoritative source.

Unfortunately today’s educational offerings are all too often still in the format of courses, requiring a commitment of many hours per week and many weeks per semester in order to be utilized. Libraries still largely offer content in books, magazines, newspapers (and now increasingly e-content), all of which may require a sizable commitment of time to search, obtain and digest.

However, in today’s environment, what people have is fifteen to thirty minutes to learn a new concept before they walk into a session to discuss it. If courses and content could be broken down into tight, fifteen to thirty minute segments that build on each other, then I think we’d see far greater utilization, not only in academic environments, but also in the workplace and at home.

How do we get this to happen? We reach out through the web to tap communities in order to build new educational content that will be used by people to teach people. Libraries doing this would use these communities of users to develop new subject areas and offer far more current, far more accessible information that, through the use of communities to vet the information, would still offer the assurance of authority, authentication and appropriateness. Ultimately, both libraries and academics should become the ultimate certifiers, rankers and valuators’ of the content created in these environments.

The resulting educational offering would not necessarily be offered in classrooms or on campuses, but deployed across the web, in small, granular components that, when linked together, offer a greater whole than is offered today using traditional settings and methodologies.

There are challenges we have to realize and deal with in this paradigm. For instance, as we all know the staggering stats on how fast the human record is growing and the fact that some (IDC being one) that predict by 2010, nearly 70% of the digital universe will be created by individuals (community). The result is that traditional methods of both education and librarianship can’t scale to handle that growth. Community is one tool that will enable us to harness that human record, distill and analyze it and derive from it new understanding and knowledge.

Yet in order to do that, we have to rethink how we run our operations and offer services to our members, non-members, users and non-users. Academic consortia and certainly library consortia are already heavily in the business of collaboration. But we need to step back and look at the new opportunities that exist in the area of collaboration and how to harness those new opportunities in order to do our work and to determine how we can extend our offerings into new environments.

Another thing to think about is that web-based communities are not geographically limited. They come together across all geographical, political and human borders. Academic and library consortia also no longer need to be geographically limited. Virtual consortia are not only possible, they're desirable. They’re based on: shared interests, purpose or just users and the communities you can extend to include and reach are virtually unlimited. If we want to find new opportunities, we have to look in new places. We need to make sure our educational courses and our library services can be plugged into FLICKR, Facebook or MySpace are just a few examples. (Check out Primo to see how you can do this!) For example, imagine viewing a picture of a snow leopard on the web and wanting to learn more about it. We should provide educational content available right there, where the user is, in a simple search box requiring only a click to obtain.

The bottom line for me – we need to understand that knowledge is built one brick at a time, and today, those bricks are getting more numerous in number but need to get smaller and smaller in size. In order for academia and libraries to harness that change, we must employ collaboration, community and openness to leverage the opportunities that are in front of us. Then we’ll be able to put courses, content and libraries into online communities so that libraries, universities and colleges become the face and the “brand” for knowledge.