Tim O'Reilly's excellent article on the Web 2.0 lays out some some significant challenges/opportunities for higher education, particularly for people like myself in technology-intensive areas. I won't summarize the article. It really should be read in full. Instead I'll just throw out some ideas.
1. The "long tail:" I've discussed this idea here before, I think. Basically the idea is the curriculum with a relatively small audience can be effectively delivered over the web. That is, even staying in the SUNY system, there's something like 400,000 students. Let's say 1% of those are Junior or Senior English majors (4,000 students). I need .5% of that vertical market to fill a course. As such, in theory, SUNY English faculty, could offer dozens of highly specialized online courses every semester.
The common error in thinking is that colleges should offer their core curriculum online. I think this impulse comes out of the belief that such courses have a wide consituency that might take them. That makes sense in a way, and shifting in the direction I'm suggesting will require some "attitude adjustment." However, it makes much more sense to me that students will take an online course because that's the only way they can get access to it. The problem is creating a large enough user base for the long tail to go into effect.
2. Mashups: this leads me to my second point. The really interesting parts of the Web 2.0 are mashups: combinations of various online applications to provide new user experience. O'Reilly provides the example of combining Google Maps with Craigslist to create maps of available apartments and homes. Having just bought a home, I can tell you this would have been a great service to have. In a sense, mashups have long been a part of higher education in the form of interdisciplinary studies, cross-listed courses, and such. As much as such activities are often lauded, at most institutions interdisciplinary programs are not well-supported or well-understood.
The long-tail curriculum I'm describing requires the mash-up of disciplines and institutions. Believe me when I say I know quite well the territorial protectiveness of most academics. Ultimately it is this strong territoriality that will be the undoing of many disciplines, including my own, for which I hold out little hope. I firmly believe that the practice of the mashup points the way to a new mode of curricular production. In this case, one is mashing up disciplinary content, methods, curriculum, institutional resources, and student populations.
For example, let's say I'm going to offer a 400-level course on contemporary poetics focusing on experimental and multimedia methods of composition. It's not a common course, so maybe its the only one of its kind being offered this semester or this year in the SUNY system. Maybe there are two or three others. In any case, a course of this kind has been offered before somewhere. So let's say that it's been offered twice before online, and there are online materials from those courses: blogs, wikis, etc. Now I'm going to mashup that content with my own content and leave something new for the next person who teaches the course. I'm going to enroll students from around SUNY and those institutions and departments are going to incorporate my course into their curricular requirements.
In order to so, they're going to have to trust me. Hence point three.
3. Trusted users: a significant part of what makes Web 2.0 applications valuable is the trust they put in users. From blogs to wikipedia to del.icio.us to Amazon's user comments and ratings, the Web 2.0 is about the value-added of the user and the capacity of a large number of users to be self-correcting.
The trusted users concept in higher ed works on two levels. First is the importance of the professor trusting his or her students. As I've just suggested, an important part of the work of a Web 2.0 course is adding to the course content that will live on to the course's next incarnation. Much of this content will be produced by students. Though perhaps a class doesn't have the critical mass of Amazon or wikipedia, it does have (hopefully) a highly committed community. I don't need 10,000 readers to keep my blog honest and accurate, just a dozen or so, fairly regular, and trusted users. In part this is the case because my course, just like my blog, is part of a large system.
As O'Reilly notes:
If an essential part of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, turning the web into a kind of global brain, the blogosphere is the equivalent of constant mental chatter in the forebrain, the voice we hear in all of our heads. It may not reflect the deep structure of the brain, which is often unconscious, but is instead the equivalent of conscious thought. And as a reflection of conscious thought and attention, the blogosphere has begun to have a powerful effect.
A little sci-fi, but you get the point. My course is just part of the Web 2.0. My students don't have to be perfect or incredibly knowledgeable. They just have to be part of the process, contributing their own part to the collective intelligence. Assuming my vision above, my course is part of 50 or more highly specialized online courses in English offered each semester to 1000 or more students. At this level we start to approach the necessary mass.
But I'm forgetting the second part of the trusted user concept. The faculty have to be trusted users: trusted by the university AND by one another. This is the part I have a hard time imagining ever occuring (which is really pretty sad, since it means that we are our own worst enemies... which of course we are). But what this means is that I would have to be trusted, not only by my own faculty in my own department, but also by all the SUNY English departments, to offer a course for their students. In turn, I would have to trust my content with the next professor teaching the course, as s/he would have to trust me.
I don't know that it will happen, but this open source, large scale model of information is growing all around us.