Should I continue hosting blogs and wikis on campus?

Given that the U of A is switching to Google for email, it would seem the primary argument for hosting stuff on campus may no longer be critical – if it’s OK to host content and student info from a Canadian university on an American server.

So, the question becomes: Should campuses host their own services? Email? Blogs? Wikis? Would it be better to just point people to recommended third party services (, etc…) and provide some support and context?

Should I still be running and Should they be transitioned to off-campus services?

I really need to hear from faculty, students, staff, and the off-campus community. Any opinions?

41 thoughts on “Should I continue hosting blogs and wikis on campus?”

  1. It’s an important question and it is our duty to keep asking it, even if we come back with the same answer, because the conditions we work in do change and it helps us get clear on what values ARE important to us.

    I have vacillated on this issue a few times. When I see campuses slow to respond to innovation, using 1995 technology (ahem, Blackborg, ahem) and seemingly intransigent about changing, then the appeal of the rapid innovation we are seeing in online apps is strong and alluring. Plus in theory it lets us focus more on what (at least part) of our core “business,” teaching and learning, is supposed to be.

    But I am increasingly back pedaling on this: partly because it paints the issue as too black and white – they’ll always likely be some case to be made for both approaches, hosting in house vs in the cloud; partly because of some of the issues George and others raised in the recent discussions on openness and pragmatism; and partly also for political reasons – I am increasingly worried about the issue of “net neutrality” and increasingly seeing the campus network as another site of this struggle, one that can usefully use the platform of academic freedom to fight for freedom in general. As such, I am loathe to go even further down the road of giving away control over the means and territory of expression to corproate and government interests.

    I think a nuanced approach would look at the specific services on an individual basis, their role in the teaching and learning (and research) mission, their already commodity nature (or not) as well as issues around freedom and privacy and make decisions on that basis. I also think there are *parts* of hosting a service that can usefuly be outsourced without giving up control – do we need to actually run all of the physical infrastructure to still maintain control over the platforms?

    The irony is that too often when the issue of “control” comes up in relation to academic systems it is unfortunately about the institution/administration “controlling” the freedoms students have in using them. We need to change this – we are supposed to be a bastion of the defense of freedom, not the implementers of control, and if we’ve become such to the extent that by necessity faculty and students MUST move out of the institution to even have freedom, this is a dire state, one I think needs addressing not by simply abandoning the institutions (as those are the bodies around which the freedoms have, at least in theory if not in practice, accumulated) but by fighting back, resting control, of both them and the commons which they are supposed to support.

    In retrospect this is perhaps some of the radicalism George was calling for – my issue was never with the idea, but with the false dichotomies of practice/theory it set up, and that simply calling for it is not enough, we must ACT.

  2. I’m not sure you can draw a direct correlation between an email service and something like blogging and wikis. Email has been largely commoditized over the last half decade or so. Email services are free for the most part and provide nearly identical service. As web clients become more prevalent, this becomes the one differentiating factor. As U of C continues to push for desktop-based clients (compatible with most free email services), and the webmail interface is archaic, it goes to reason that there is very little benefit in maintaining a locally hosted service.

    Beyond this, email in and of itself should no longer be seen as a core-service to be offered by universities. It does not promote learning or interaction to any greater extent than freely available services online. This is drastically different from the environment 10-20 years ago where email was a scarce commodity and a university was exactly where hosting such a service belonged.

    Outside of the identifiable address (which is also compatible with outsourcing) there’s little benefit in keeping it on campus.

    Blogging and Wiki’s are slightly different. First, both services are customized to fit the needs of a U of C audience. Whether collaborating on a class project, or blogging about one’s field school, these activities can flourish here where they may lose their impact on a more generalized public system.

    Secondly, while the core service is essentially the same as those services freely available, what’s provided here is a smaller, tightly knit community. This provides a unique ability for U of C’s identity to be expressed by crowd-sourcing though it’s bloggers and wiki contributors. I believe this alone provides validation for a U of C based service that runs concurrently to others on the internet.

    As for the cost comparison, I think it’s intuitively obvious that the investment in an email service, including support, bandwidth, storage, backup, and administration, vastly outweighs the cost investment in locally run blogs and wikis. I’m by no means saying your investment of time and resources is trivial, but I’d say that in the end the benefits outweigh the cost.

    So in conclusion, in my humble opinion I’d say keep at er!

  3. Yes, you should continue. I much rather control be in the hands of an individual, rather than a corporation. much rather be the control be in the hands of a government organization rather than a private one. I much rather control be in the hands of a Canadian private organization than an American anything. Islands of information are good for privacy… Consolidation is bad. BTW, I am still working on the Social OS project… Long live freedom, long live the distributed nature of the web (


  4. I vote for continuing – hosting on campus gives a platform for faculty, staff or students who might be reluctant to use third-party software. As staff on campus, we cannot support everything, but we can support a couple of things well. This provides some consistency for students, staff and faculty, and “safe” place to try new things out.

    I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think we support perhaps an example of some services for the middle to late crowd of adopters, and encourage the early adopters play with new, emerging or simply different platforms.

    Then everyone wins.

    (except you, when dealing with spam-bots, etc…..)

  5. I don’t know what Canadian student privacy laws are like, but I know that external hosting can run afoul of U.S. law (FERPA). I recommend looking into what legal ramifications might be of moving it out.

  6. I agree with the commodification-of-email point made above. If you are going to *innovate* around the use of blogs, wikis, or anything else, then having them on campus makes sense. And some of that innovation comes from having a connected group of people using the same tools in the same “space”.

  7. I guess the root of the question is twofold:

    1. given limited resources on campus, and cuts, is it risky to talk people into building an experimental, non-funded, partial-FTE-supported platform into their courses? IT can’t take it on. If I’m cut, the services evaporate. That scares the shit out of me.

    2. email was innovative at one time. when I got my account in 1987, the university was the only way to get an account. when does it shift from innovation to commodity?

  8. I don’t like the commodity argument because it leaves out the political aspects which I find to be much more important to me personally being classified as a part of a minority that is regularly targeted. In the future who knows who may be targeted and for what reasons… Russians, Irish, South Americans, who knows… It is important for our politics to make sure the police state does not yield us impotent to such an extent that we cannot have a conversation without government oversight and are forced thereby to censor ourselves in fear of retribution by the authoritarian police — we’re half way there as it is.

    As for providing an experimental platform, you are not writing custom code, so keep it simple and have a migration contingency plan that you can hand over to them if you can’t support it; either to the university or to the profs. Courses last 4 months. They can ditch the platform for something else for the next semester, you can support it a few months even if you are kicked out or help transition that… It’s the best that you can do, and I don’t think it is your job or expect of you to make this stuff available forever — if it were then the university should/would allocate a real budget to maintaining it, etc.

    Technology is commodity in the age of Google, however privacy and the politics that goes along with it is innovative.

  9. One pragmatic point to echo Adam’s comments: many of the free cloud services don’t offer the functionality of their self-hosted equivalents., for example, doesn’t allow plugins, whereas a self-hosted wordpress installation does. As someone who works at an institution with ZERO support for anything other than the official LMS, I’m envious of institutions that have a wiki & blog service available.

  10. I think the issue goes beyond cost and convenience. I regularly argue that everybody should have their own domain to build the tools they want to use, to develop their own network, and to create their own web footprint. .

    I find the question of shared and collaborative spaces an interesting one. Does it devolve to who has the most vested in owning the content?

    Content on my webside belongs to me. Content on the university server belongs to them. Who owns – and can safeguard – the information in the cloud? What would happen if the content disappeared? If my content disappears, then I’m the one responsible. If the University’s content disappears, what are the liabilities associated with that, and what exposures is the institution willing to face?

  11. @dnorman

    1. Devise a clear “exit strategy”. Should campus IT adopt an “official” blog/wiki or should your project end for any number of reasons, users should have a way to easily migrate their content to another provider. I believe this is already in place, at least for the blogs.

    2. Answer: Just my 2c, I think it shifts to a commodity when source of the service no longer becomes a factor of quality of service. For example, where my electricity comes from is irrelevant for all intents and purposes (if I ignore the green streak in me). An operating system still holds value in and of itself. However, as services become more web-based the line between Mac and PC will continue to blur. Maybe one day disappear? Too early to tell.

    In principle, your services can be replicated by any number of other online services. In practice however, no one else can replicate the unique community you’ve created by being a dedicated provider for U of C.

  12. Hey D’arcy
    we have that kind of discussion here all the time, and I’ve followed your spammy troubles over the last little while. I just can’t help thinking that you could be doing more good for the university than trying to outthink spammers. It’s hard work… and it’s scary work to be responsible for so much of people’s hard work.

    My feeling (today) is that people need to learn to control their own content… and while your hosting has probably lead to more use than there would have been otherwise, but better to encourage/lead/train people to controlling their own data, so they get the idea of their learning as at least partially separate from the institution.

    but i’ll probably change my mind tomorrow.

  13. I agree with what Scott said in the first comment. Academic institutions are often perceived to offer faculty and students greater freedom than they might have going through a private service hosted elsewhere (especially given the US Patriot Act), but I think it depends on the institution. At our institution I (and some others) frequently turn to 3rd party hosting because there is a lack of tools hosted here (no blogs, wikis, etc. unless you count some that are in, as Scott so aptly called, Blackborg). The UCalgary doesn’t seem to have those limitations, but it sounds like you have some very real concerns that that may be changing.

    I am curious, when it comes to public sites like blogs and wikis that are cached by companies like Google regardless of where the host is, does it really matter who the host is? Much of our content already resides on US servers.

  14. On one hand what Dave has pointed out is a valiant cause. However, most people simply don’t care enough to maintain their own tools. They will simply go to another provider and sign up for their tools without understanding the implications of what they are doing. Another approach that you might try is to recruit a student club into helping you maintain this… When I started at the U I tried to start a forum with no luck because no one in administration at the U wanted to help me get it going… I am sure there are plenty of students who might be interested in helping maintain these services and that might be a way of keeping this thing going while moving away form personal responsibility for its maintenance. In return perhaps you can write them a recommendation letter… Ultimately, those are the people that should be running these tools in the real world anyhow.

  15. Heather, It matters from the implication of privacy… and that’s not just a theoretical idea… In the US law enforcement can compel Google to divulge any information to them, and Google usually obliges. They can then use that information against people. So for instance if we lived in the McCarthy era and you joined a communist club at the University, you might end up at the border and be denied entry/harassed because they have a file on you pruned from your Google/university mail account with messages from the local Communist chapter. They further might never tell you that this is the reason that you are being denied entry.

  16. Sami, I understand your concerns when it comes to email, which is theoretically private, but blogs and wikis are usually public, so everyone already has access to the content that you post.

  17. Heather, well it depends on the tools. Some tools will actually delete when you tell them to delete stuff that you have posted… Google does not do this, and tell you that when you sign up… Facebook does the same thing… So even if you decide that something that you have made public should no longer appear on your site so as not to draw attention to yourself, the memory of that information lives on… Even if the tool deletes information, a service provider might have backups and may indefinitely retain those and then those can be subject to a subpoena or even something like the patriot act where it should be divulged. Tools are getting better and access control to the group of people that you trust even when those people have their own sites or different sites is on its way.

  18. Hi D’Arcy – If you’ve not read it, check out Lev Gonick’s recent post The Year Ahead in IT. In it he says “Expect new ‘private cloud’ services that allow the same economies of scale associated with public cloud services, yet are ‘protected’ with a layer of privacy and regulatory ability. These new private cloud services will afford additional certainty that data are residing on geographically knowable infrastructure, or in a way that assures compliance with export licensing, or honors certain service level agreements regarding privacy or a no commingling requirement for certain data. More pragmatically, starting in 2010, universities will want to embrace a hybrid architecture for storage and computing that combines on-campus resources, private cloud services for others, and open public cloud resources for other kinds of applications.”

    Best regards, Gary

    1. Just to second Gary’s post here; I highly recommend Lev’s post too (and his blog in general- he is an innovator who also gets the legitimate campus concerns and balances theory and pragmatism well) as well as this idea of new possibilities in the “cloud.” Indeed, “the cloud” is now used to mean any software-as-a-service which is not at all what I originally understood it as. Instead, I understood it more like Amazon’s EC2 type services which would provide commodity storage or app space *on which* enterprises and institutions could host. It’s this kind of combination I think that will allow us (and I use that term to mean broadly both institutions vested in perserving freedom AND individuals) keep control over the pieces we need but still benefitting from cost savings on hosting and infrastructure. Though even those pieces I think are still usefully debated as an important aspect of campus networks – campuses were the original large ISPs, and in some cases still do things very few other providers can (I’m thinking especially some of the big science stuff here). These tensions aren’t going to go away anytime soo, but it is great that we can resurface them regularly as our thinking is maturing AND the landscape is changing as well.

  19. Lots of important aspects to the discussion re. net neutrality, Canada/US political differences, and potential for censorship…all of which I’m which I’m going to ignore (for now).

    I’m really in the groove with Adam’s comments on the potential for a “small community” feel of a locally hosted solution. There are other benefits of hosting such systems locally (I’m thinking feed aggregation, potential data driven decision making, etc), the least of which is that in-house/local hosting seems the best way to get the most faculty into web-based practices. I think universities provided email to faculty and students essentially to force faculty to be open to that mode of communication–or at least to have no more excuses. It’s true: in the early days, a reliable e-mail account was not to be taken for granted, so the university service itself had value. Nowadays, I can agree with Adam’s observation that “email in and of itself should no longer be seen as a core-service to be offered by universities” — this is something individuals should own. But if the universities didn’t give–and indeed eventually require faculty to use–university email accounts, would we ever have seen the wide spread adoption of email we have today on campuses? Maybe I’m being too cynical about the pace at which the average university faculty member adopts current technology.

    But D’Arcy’s right to be scared about the failure of locally hosted systems (I am too)–and the psychological trauma to faculty and students who tried something new and lost the service that may be caused in the fall-out. The only way to avoid this is for the university to be dedicated to the system’s success. One must therefore make the decision to host in-house very carefully, with some degree of certainty that a demand will persist, if not grow. But that’s a hard pitch to sell these days when who knows what the changing web will bring us next year in terms of communication and collaboration tools and services? (This reality reinforces the absurdity of the lethargic LMS, if you want to go there…)

  20. I disagree that such a loss would be tragic. The university commonly discards everything students produce… This would then just fall in the list with everything else… Just like everything else evolution and innovation requires risk of loss, and it is in that risk that we remain human… I find the thought of never being able to forget tragic. After all we all go sometime and the memories last no more than a generation unless they are relevant in a bigger way than the elementary talent show that the web has become . The idea that what we lose stays lost is liberating and also makes what we have more valuable. Have a way to backup and encourage students to do it often, good enough.

  21. D’Arcy – no offense meant here and I really don’t know how you allocate your time, but as the question was posed at least partially out of resource issues I believe that faculty and students need help with *intelligent use* of blogs and wikis. They need tips on what sorts of things to posts and tricks on how to embed, etc. If we’re taking staff cuts I’d rather have the cuts with staff who are doing hosting and protect staff who are directly interacting with users to facilitate their intelligent use. That’s my personal bias, but that’s where I believe the value add is.

    Users, of course, should have a say in this. My paragraph above is being paternalistic on their behalf and for many they many not want/need that.

    As a user, when I moved my blog a few years ago because the server it was on was being re-purposed, I lost a good bit of my audience, the rankings of my pages in Google dropped for quite a while and continued to point to the old site for quite some time, and I began to wonder whether I had made a blunder by switching. So I can envision that current users of your services would be quite protective of that use, though if your university is like mine, they are not the ones paying for the service. Ultimately having blogspot host rather than the U of I is not a big deal for me.

  22. Frankly, just because the U of A is doing doesn’t mean that it’s either ok or the right decision. Honestly I believe the U of A choice is a deeply flawed decision that will come back to haunt them in the future. Universities are funny creatures: at once a small city, a place to learn, a place to do research and a cultural memory institution.

    We tend to be confronted with the first aspect (being a small city) more often than not in terms of basic services that need to be provided in order to function. People need to be fed, housed, paid and other pedestrian functions (hell hath no fury like no functioning women’s bathrooms…) and often when analysis is made of the service organization that provides these necessities, there is a tendency of evaluating everything under the same rubric. I think e-mail has become enough of a utility that it belongs in the category of needs of a small city. The problem is that while it is a utility, the content contained within has artifactual value to the institution from both a privacy aspect and from a institutional memory aspect. Locating the administration of e-mail in a private corporation makes ensuring those two things problematic. As we learned at East Anglia, leaking e-mails can have a devastating impact. Now consider what happens when a private corporation who is only beholden to its own interests (which often transcend and conflict with public / national concerns) is the maintainer of that archive.

    I can’t (and won’t) make the claim that blogs and wikis exist in the same realm of utility because they do not. Yet their value strikes to the heart of the latter three functions of a university in that they are publishing platforms. We’re in the midst of dramatic transformation in scholarly communication. I think within a few years we’ll begin to question the physical aspects of a university — the value of cramming 200 students in a university theatre and calling it an interaction with the academy is suspect at best. But there can be no doubt about the intellectual output of a university. The conversation about what is important about a university and how the academy works is at the early stages at best and many of the approaches will be experimental. Ceding that conversation to private corporations at this early stage returns us back to the situation that sparked the transformation to begin with.

    At the same time, I’d suggest that institutional IT is probably the wrong place to house these kinds of tools in the long term. Even if much of the content is ephemeral, it makes more sense to engage those who maintain content on campuses to assess the artifactual value of the content from an institutional perspective.

  23. @DijutalTim

    From your post I think I’m understanding that your concerns revolve around privacy and data retention. I won’t argue the fact that both of these are important and that the impact of failure of either can be severe. However, you imply that both of these goals are better served by maintaining these services in-house. I can’t see how these are directly affected by the service provider. I would contend that any leaks or loss of data are more typically the result of the user and not the system. I can’t recall any examples of Google leaking or losing people’s emails, while capacity and server up-time are typically superior to that of a smaller managed service. If I’m wrong in this matter, please help me out.

  24. There are several questions rolled up in the same discussion.
    – should the institution provide technology functionality to their students?
    – which services should the institution provide
    – should students be required to use the university solution?
    – if there is a university solution, what is the terms of service, privacy and such, for its use?
    – should the university outsource or in-source the solution?

    And that is before you get to the Canada/US hosting argument, it is the most contentious but bigger than this issue. If there was a Canadian Google solution – I still think there is are questions to be answered.

    In the days where functionality was limited and access to services expensive, there was a role for institutional services. I used MacTCP with SLIP to get to the Internet via a University long before there were any ISPs. That level of scarcity no longer exists. I’m still concerned about the consequences of using ‘free’ services but it is hard to argue people don’t have cheap or free alternatives.

    The situation changed and I no longer think the institution needs to provide the service beyond ensuring a level of equity of access for students. I certainly don’t think you can compel people to use the university solution anymore. We have the same problem in enterprise services where it is almost impossible to compel use of only corporate tools by employees. If you want to provide it out of the goodness of your heart, good on you, but I think it is difficult to state the imperative that you need to provide the service.

    Along with that, I’m with Scott that there may be some tools that are worth doing and some that may not be worth doing.

    Also, implied in the University solution is the sense of a higher level of trust over the external choices, whether chosen by the institution or the individual. I have always liked to remove my data (email, web) from my ISP or employer so I think whether you trust them or not the bigger ‘lesson’ for the students is to own their data and in many cases that includes holding it separate from a transient provider like an employer or educational institution.

  25. @Adam Zakreski,

    I’m not really concerned about privacy and data retention in terms of things that D’Arcy is worried about; they are publishing tools and privacy not really relevant here.

    E-mail at a university is a much more complex beast though. Some of the e-mails have an institutional memory aspect to it — especially in exchanges at an administrative level and are covered by things like a records management policy. Some privacy issues are not obvious — for instance, some e-mails may contain research data bound by research ethics rules and researchers are obligated to ensure its safety and may have mandated destruction dates. While proper agreements might do the trick, the complexities of these often conflicting requirements means that local control probably has the best chance of ensuring compliance.

  26. @DijutalTim

    Just because the current set of tools do not incorporate privacy does not mean that in the future they will not… Ideally you should have privacy with blogging tools just like you do with any other tool. The walled gardens approach, where every user has a garden of their own and they can choose what is private and what is public and to whom is in mind superior to everything being public… Some things you share with certain groups and so on and that makes communication more meaningful.

  27. An interesting anecdote: for a couple of years I’ve asked my sophomore web design students to blog about experiences and current articles in the field. Before this semester I referred them to or Blogger. This semester I added the option of using our new, test-pilot WPMU server, I did not overtly discriminate between any of these services, and yet as of today, nearly all of the students who didn’t have blogs already (and that was most of them) opted to use the university hosted solution–in spite of the fact that it’s clearly labeled “pilot” with no guarantee of permanence.

    This anecdote drives a lot of questions to mind which I’ll need to reflect on. I do wonder if other teachers have related experiences offering competing blog services.

  28. @Sami,

    I’m not suggesting that mediated access doesn’t have a place in these kinds of tools (as distinct from privacy which as commonly discussed relates more to fundamental rights and legislation). I should point out that universities are not obligated to provide tools for staff, faculty and students to interact with the wider world outside of academia; they are only obligated to provide these tools in support of academic / scholarly purposes.

  29. I’m lucky… in my situation there are simple pragmatics: the capabilities that we want to provide aren’t easily enough accomplished with the outsourced/commercial/etc systems. I then figure in the *positive* aspects of feeling an affinity with the community of learners that is our institution and the feeling of being part of a specific community, an island in an ocean of undifferentiated content, but with easy flights and shipping scheduled to go back and forth. Then I consider how I can help myself and our instructors with specific needs. Then I factor in that it just isn’t that hard (to take blogs as an example) to pack up one’s marbles and go play somewhere else.

    Turns out the calculation isn’t hard. For now. Claiming and reclaiming an *open* institutional space– while allowing for participants’ ownership of their work (the escape plan) fulfills pragmatic and philosophical ends. Within that I have many questions and as-yet-unknowns about “a domain of one’s own” and such, but the question of moving or continuing to send blogging and (to a lesser, but real extent) wiki-ing vs in-institution is pretty easy to answer.

  30. External hosting of core services outside of the institution is a vexed issue at my university (RMIT University, Melbourne). There is increasing pressure from sections of the university to host many key educational technologies externally (we already use external hosting for a number of services). This pressure even extends to external hosting of the core university LMS.

    There are many reasons for this, perhaps most notable is the perception that externally hosted edtech may respond more quickly to the requirements of the university (not necessarily true). From an IT management point of view there are limited resources to manage lots of infrastructure so why not outsource that activity to others?

    On the other hand we find that legal issues become much more critical. Contracts (and I am working on three at the moment) need very careful analysis and issues around privacy and security of data are much more apparent than for internally hosted services. Even using a real time communication service that transmits data (no storage) through any server outside of the state of Victoria means that the service provider must meet Victorian privacy legislation requirements.

    This raises a lot of problems for any service that has privacy implications and clearly not every service can be externally hosted with the current legislation.

    Your question referred to blogs and wikis and I would view these as being essentially public publishing tools. I think that it is probably easier to host these externally than other types of services. In fact I am looking at possibly hosting my institutions blogs and wikis externally in future. This will probably be through purchasing virtual servers in the cloud but with the provider based in Victoria. We may then run and manage the blogs/wikis application from those servers and allow the service provider to manage network connectivity and the physical hardware. Even so, quite a lot of thought will need to be given to data storage.



  31. @DijutalTim : Universities are obligated by all the public money they are given to create good, reasonable, and educated citizens that contribute to the economy in society in meeting that goal I would argue to the contrary and say that yes they are obligated to provide such tools and educate their students on how to use them.

  32. Over the last year or so I’ve though about this a lot (see and work backwards).

    The whole question is about control and capturing what are rather grandly called scholarly outputs. And these days research in progress notes take the form of wikis and blogs etc etc.

    Externally hosted services have no real obligation to guarantee a service or importantly a backup service and for this reason it’s important to take responsibility and host our own blogs and wikis. And if we want cross institutional co-operation suitable authentication and federation mechanisms.

    But should we care about hosting the soccer club blog? Probably not, but on the other hand we shouldn’t be churlish and refuse them access if we have the facilities anyway.

  33. I’m coming late to the party here, and I’m not sure I’ve entirely digested all of what’s come before, but I have a few quick thoughts/comments.

    Two and half years ago when we launched UMW Blogs I was ambivalent about hosting our own blog service. Much like you describe, we often talked about blogs (and wikis) eventually becoming such a basic commodity, like email, that it wouldn’t make sense for the University to be in the business of maintaining the system. I was also uncomfortable with the idea of these spaces living w/in an institutional context, ultimately. If we were trying to show students how to stake a claim for themselves in the digital world, wouldn’t it be better if they did it out there in the wild web as opposed to in our safe sanctuary?

    Now 2 1/2 years into the experiment, I think I can unequivocally say that the impact that UMW Blogs has had on our community could not have been replicated by pointing people to or blogger. There was something about the communal nature of the space (even as we still struggle to make connections more visible in and among courses and blogs) that allowed us a University to “inhabit” this space in a very special way.

    (I should also mention that our solution is a bit hybrid — we administer WPMU but we host it externally)

    I also wanted to mention that I think this debate about institutional control being necessary due to privacy or security concerns is a slippery one. It seems like there is a tacit assumption that the systems maintained and administered by our schools are inherently more secure than external ones. I think this is a false assumption and putting it out there cuts the conversation off at the knees. I think we need to unravel our understanding of what privacy and security mean, what we really are trying to achieve when we say we need to “protect privacy” and “secure data”, and then critically consider our options–both internal and external–without letting our institutional stakes get in the way. Just my two cents.

  34. First, I have to say wow. I’m blown away at the responses to my simple question. Thank you for responding, and stretching the discussion in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I wrote the blog post – initially, it was a simple reaction to the U of A GMail announcement. It’s clear that the issues are far more complicated than that. I’m going to try to respond to the various threads in the responses, rather than fragmenting it all back into individual responses. I hope that doesn’t confuse things.

    It looks like the key issue involves privacy. An externally hosted solution – wherever it resides – means that any true sense of privacy would be impossible. The most active blogging projects currently in UCalgaryBlogs are not public. They are available only for students in a course. Some of these courses are discussing topics that could make things uncomfortable if the content leaked – Sami’s reference to McCarthy-ish border Google queries is actually the primary reason why I enabled private blogging sites in the first place. Having the software and data hosted off campus would make it harder to ensure privacy. (I know I can’t even 100% guarantee privacy with an on-campus system, but it’s closer than any off-campus system can offer). So, truly private blogging communities would be difficult or impossible on a third-party system.

    Freedom of speech is another critical issue, somewhat related to privacy. Students (and faculty, etc…) need to be able to discuss issues without fear of repercussions – whether it’s a POLI student discussing abortion, or an ECON student exploring various types of corporate governance. These things need to be possible, without fear of them coming back to bite the student in the ass decades later (running for office, as CEO of a company, etc…). There are ways to minimize the risks (pseudonyms, etc…) but having an on-campus system seems to help here. Also, I made the initial decision to NOT integrate either the blogs or the wiki with the campus identity management / authentication system because I wanted it to be easy for students to create several accounts that couldn’t be directly tied to their main “public” identity.

    Also, as a government institution, an on-campus solution would be tightly regulated by policies such as FOIP, in ways that may not be as rigorous in an off-campus environment. In this case, being clearly under the mandate of university policies could help with trust, security, and liability.

    With the more philosophical issues aside, it seems like the biggest reason to continue hosting is that of community. If many faculty and students are using these services, there is the potential for a broader community to develop. That hasn’t happened yet – there have definitely been communities form within courses and programs, but not more broadly. It also makes it possible to provide customized contextual support – this isn’t restricted to an on-campus solution, but it’s much easier to show how these specific tools can be used in our contexts, rather than trying to bridge an unknowable number of other third-party solutions and services.

    Probably the most pragmatic reason for continuing on-campus hosting is the ability to customize the services to meet our academic needs – adding plugins, themes, tweaking things to work as we need. These things can be difficult or impossible with third party services. By hosting it ourselves, we maintain flexibility and control that makes it possible to adapt the software as needed. We’re also able to customize support to match the needs of our users, further in response to these customizations. This also ties into the “innovation vs. commodification” angle – if all we’re doing is using a stock copy of WordPress and letting people use it without adaptation, then it’s a commodity. But, we’re spending most of our time working with faculty to extend and adapt the platform to meet their specific needs. That kind of innovation would be difficult if we weren’t driving our own bus.

    Finally, there’s the data/content/knowledge retention angle. Currently, everyone has a way to get their stuff out of the sandbox (but many may be unaware of it – I need to work on that). Anyone can pack up their blog and take it elsewhere. Or they can delete it. Or they can edit it.

    @dijutaltim – should I be talking with the Library and Institutional Repository folks to work on a way for faculty and students to push content into DSpace for archiving? Should I be talking with you guys about hosting the services as well?

  35. @dnorman,

    Yes — you should definitely talk to the LCR folks (of course, I am one…). The IR currently houses grey lit and technical reports so it does cover more than just “finished” work. As for hosting — I think the IS2 folks might have some say (or might *want* to have some say). Either way, we should talk.

  36. @Sami

    For the most part, that assertion falls flat when you place it against any other university service. For instance, you can’t use the biology labs to work on personal projects. Nor can you walk into the university press and expect them to publish a book for you.

    That being said, as @doug moncur pointed out, universities to tend to be amenable to being good corporate citizens and returning to community where they can by allowing for broader use than mandated to. For instance, university libraries tend to be the best examples of this. Most electronic databases are licensed specifically for the number of students at the institution but librarians have traditionally fought for the right of any one coming in off the street and using a local workstation to access those resources. But there’s a difference between returning to community as part of being a good citizen and being obligated to do so.

  37. @DijutalTim Hardly falls flat, I could argue further, but I am happy with your assertion and the general idea that if it’s in the power for the university to extend the service without too much effort then they should do it… I don’t like the use of term corporate citizens. In regards to blogs and privacy, helping students communicate with everyone, whether they were in or out of the university, falls within this definition in my mind. Someone coming off the street is quite a bit different then an existing student.

  38. @D’Arcy I have to say I’m a little surprised to find more faith that academic institutions will protect freedom of speech. I don’t think it’s just in Utah, but a number of institutions have “honor codes” and “appropriate use of technology” policies that prohibit or limit certain kinds of purportedly offensive speech. I guess there’s free speech and then there’s free speech.

    Of course I haven’t read the Terms of Use for Blogger or since, oh, ever … I suppose it may all be relative.

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