Sunday, December 16, 2012

University Websites Must Allow for Difference of Opinion

In "3 idioms reveal the truth about university websites" (13 December 2012), Dey Alexander argues that universities need a single coordinated web presence, not just a collection of sub-sites and there should be a clear boundary between what is boundary between internal and external content. However, universities are not corporations devoted to profit, they intended to educate and produce new knowledge, which requires differing views to be debated.

Education and research require that different views of the world be explored, debated and tested. There cannot be one central unified view on what is true at at university: everything has to be open to debate. The World Wide Web was developed by researchers in order to foster new knowledge. Unlike previous online information systems, it was designed to allow for diversity of view, not having any single point of control and allowing documents to be created ad-hoc. Tim Berners-Lee , the inventor of the World Wide Web will be speaking at the Australian National University in Canberra, 31 January 2013.

Here are the functions of the Australian National University, as set down in legislation:

(a)  advancing and transmitting knowledge, by undertaking research and teaching of the highest quality;
(b)  encouraging, and providing facilities for, research and postgraduate study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia;
(c)  providing facilities and courses for higher education generally, including education appropriate to professional and other occupations, for students from within Australia and overseas;
(d)  providing facilities and courses at higher education level and other levels in the visual and performing arts, and, in so doing, promoting the highest standards of practice in those fields;
(e)  awarding and conferring degrees, diplomas and certificates in its own right or jointly with other institutions, as determined by the Council;
(f)  providing opportunities for persons, including those who already have post‑secondary qualifications, to obtain higher education qualifications;
(g)  engaging in extension activities.
(2)  In the performance of its functions, the University must pay attention to its national and international roles and to the needs of the Australian Capital Territory and the surrounding regions. ...

From section 5, Functions of the University,

In universities, as in the corporate world and in government, individuals are not free to publish whatever they like. There are rules as to what you can say as a member of the organisation. However, academics are given a level of freedom to express their views. Unlike company employees and public servants, academics are encouraged to speak publicly on areas within their area of expertise. There is no requirement for an academic to seek approval for what they say, but with that freedom comes responsibility.
Academic Freedom
  1. The University recognises the concept and practice of academic freedom as central to the proper conduct of teaching, research and scholarship.
  2. Academic and general staff are expected to use this freedom in a manner that is consistent with a responsible and honest search for knowledge and its dissemination.
  3. Academic freedom does not extend to behaviour that is harassing, disruptive and intimidating or that interferes with the academic or work performance or freedom of others ...

    From: ANU Code of Conduct, Policy 200103912, Vice-Chancellor , Australian National University, 26 March 2012

The situation with government is not that different to academics. While there are more secrets for public servants to keep, there is still an obligation to release information. In 2010, the then Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, issued a "Declaration of Open Government" via a Blog. Freedom of Information legislation, overseen by the  Australian Information Commissioner. The most tangible change is the release of government information under a Creative Commons Licence. What has yet to change is a culture of rigid hierarchical control and hoarding of public information, prevalent in much of the public service. Ironically, during my time working as a civilian in the Defence Department, I found that the military personnel were better equipped to deal with distributed decision making than the public servants, as the military trains it officers to consult, decide and then act.

Open Government, like education and research at universities, is something which requires differing views to be expressed within reasonable bounds. Australian universities, in particular the ANU, had a key role in introducing the web to government. They can again have a key role in fostering a more open and efficient form of government. These techniques will be increasingly applicable to the corporate world as well. With the ubiquity of the Internet and rapid distribution of information, companies do not have the luxury of waiting for a rigid hierarchy to make decisions.

There will be an Open Government  Min-Conference, at the ANU in Canberra, 29 January 2013, as part of Linux Conference 2013.

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