Degree is Social Networking – debate in Will’s comments

Well… this is an interesting conversation.

It seems that there is some debate over whether there should be a ‘university degree’ in social computing. Quite a good debate over there with many of the standard position being taken on both sides. In short, I kinda agree with parts of what most people are saying… but think that the institution/no-institution dualith seems a little tired. It really has nothing to do with whether or not these things are taught in institutions but whether they realize that we now REALLY have to be teaching and learning a moving target. Our hierarchical power structures need to be constantly moving (teacher/student for instance). We need to move more towards distributed knowledge bases and a new critical analysis that takes the new framework of knowledge as its starting point… Here’s a little breakdown of how I saw it.
Will Richardson says

I mean how in the world would this particular degree “certify” anyone as a social computing specialist any better than, um, spending a year or so just actually becoming a part of social learning network, learning from the various teachers and conversations within it, and building a rich, online portfolio that illustrates your ability to be an online community manager, social network analyst, community organizer or any of the other job descriptions they list as possible outcomes? For, um, zero dollars?

Harold Jarche says

How in the world would any degree “certify” anyone as any kind of specialist? It’s called “book learnin’” amongst more practically minded people.

Our society & economy place a higher value on degrees than on experience (for now). The university is taking advantage of a market opportunity as well as its market position in providing certified education. Would you expect anything else?

And Liz Lawley says in reply (if not directly… but she does sorta represent the other side

…There’s also a big difference between being able to do something, and being able to analyze and assess it critically. The reason people listen to and cite danah boyd and Lee Rainie (of Pew) is because they bring an analytical research approach to subjects that most of us have only an anecdotal understanding of. That’s what a graduate degree seeks to accomplish–to provide people with a broad-based understanding of a topic, to push them to see different points of view on a subject, to assess analytically and critically….

And so we have the three sides of the debate. The one (Will) who seems to claim that social networking is different than other, more traditional academic disciplines, and is one that needs to be learned by experience. Harold’s position, which seems to be all things are better learned by experience. And Liz’s position, which seems to be that all things benefit from the academic, analytical remove that can usually only be found in a graduate degree. (I have probably butchered those for simplicity… but this is my blog damnit 🙂 ) Let’s take these one at a time

Social Networking is different

My feelings of agreement here have to do with the way that Will talks about knowledge production and dissemination. In a traditional university environment, the professors are seen as the final arbiters of whether something qualifies as acceptable ‘knowledge’. His framework for knowledge is a community created one. A distributed vision. I like that.

Where I part ways with Will is on the idea of the privilege of the first wave. Will is a top tier blogger in this community, and people pay him to speak and participate in their social networks. Most social networks would be ecstatic to have him join their communities for free. He has almost total access. This is not the experience of those of second wavers who are moving into the community for the first time. I’m often reminded of how many times Linux admins have told me to ‘just read the manual’ when i have a simple question about how to do something. For year i didn’t understand the manual! An MSI is a great short cut for that.

What do we need the whole university institution for anyway?

My provincial neighbour to the south has often expounded on how he thinks that in ‘experience’ lies the way to wisdom. In a sense, I agree with him. I have been in many situations over the years where the educated have fallen flat on their face concerning anything practical. I have also seen many degree courses that amount to little more than navel gazing.
Where I part ways with Harold is on the idea that their is no intrinsic value to the navel gazing. And, what’s more, I think that people who have had graduate school education forget all the skills that they learned during that process… and perhaps don’t realize what they picked up during their university experience that was of real value. Yes… much of it needs experience to temper it… but the university experience often contributes the raw materials.

Critical Analysis and assessments in academia

I’ve never spoken to Liz… but according to her website she is “an assistant professor of Information Technology at RIT in Rochester, NY. She has master’s and doctoral degrees in Library & Information Science.” Where I find myself wholly onside with Liz is in her belief that all things do well by mixing the experience factor with ‘broad based understanding’ that comes with the time and space that can be used at an academic institution. There is a solid spectrum of our society that does not seem interested in developing the analytical skills that would allow them to hypermediate their social and political lives. I do not, however, include Will in that category of anti-intellectuals.

While I shuddered slightly at the phrase “an analytical research approach” which seems to imply that analytical research is the only thing that happens at a university (please… no. no more analytical research of society. It really hasn’t served us all that well. new research method please!) this is not the core of my objection. My problem here is in the hidden premise in this phrase; “what a graduate degree seeks to provide”. This implies an objectivity of framework and viewpoint that is sorely lacking and, indeed impossible, in the mainstream educational system. Knowledge is broken down into ‘courses and degrees’ that are often decided upon at the administrative level without any real ‘analytical research’. What is this “graduate degree” that is providing something. There is something in the expression that seems to imply an authority to academia that I don’t think it deserves.
I also notice, at the risk of being picky, that in her third paragraph she uses the phrase “only an anecdotal understanding” to separate ‘real understanding’ reached at the university from experiential knowledge but then goes on to support her own argument in her last paragraph she uses a different expression my experience has been to make a general claim about the viability of distance education as a replacement for RL interaction.


This need not be a simple in/out debate about universities. This is about what we consider valuable in our culture. Will’s point regarding how distributed knowledge is different is well taken, Harold’s about experience more than valid and Liz’s about the need for critical remove right on the mark. But they don’t really disagree. I think that there are mores and strong emotional and historical attachments at play… we need all of these things in the new world that is building. We can either be part of that new construction by identifying what we want to keep from the old and incorporate it in the new… or… not. If we allow ourselves to get lost in the dualith, in the two solitudes as it were, we’re missing a fantastic opportunity.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

5 thoughts on “Degree is Social Networking – debate in Will’s comments”

  1. Hi Dave,

    It does often seem to be an either/or rather than a both/and argument doesn’t it?

    I just wanted to drop a line and thank you on this Cyber-compliment day! You don’t post often enough for my taste 🙂 but when you do I find myself slowing down so that I can digest what you are sharing, which is a very good thing!

    I also wanted to thank you for all your work with EdTechTalk. Unfortunately my dial-up connection gets in the way of my participation but I follow the ‘casts with great interest. It’s a great resource and I am glad for it.

    Thanks again and cheers! Gotta go give props to Jeff and Jen!


  2. So I read Will’s post and the +30 comments, and then I read your post, and now I’m asking myself, what was the question again?

    Do universities have a role? Yes; especially in furthering research, but less so, IMO, in preparation for work life, which is where many have focused their efforts since the post-secondary boom ($$) of the 1960’s. PhD’s for research make sense. BA’s for work preparation don’t make sense, and they were never designed as work preparation anyway. It just came about, for several reasons, that if you had a degree you got a better job. Now that we’re saturated with degrees, the value of a degree has dropped. For example, Canada has the highest rate of post-secondary credentials in the world, but our politicians and business leaders are constantly complaining about our productivity gap with the US. But, I digress …

    My main point was that universities “own” the credentials game and the university is taking advantage of its market position. In applied areas, such as social computing, going to school and getting a degree may not be the best way to master the field. Unfortunately, the market is skewed in favour of universities. I think that this might change.

    To answer the question as to whether a university should offer a degree in social computing, my answer would be, yes, if it wants to. However, I don’t believe that a degree is the only way that a person can show mastery. Even the courts are recognizing that there is more than one way to exhibit competence in a field, as an Ontario Superior Court clearly told the Ontario College of Teachers.

    BTW, you’ve changed to a much more spartan looking website 😉

  3. I would also like to add that I don’t think Harold IS provincial… rather his province is actually south of mind haha


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