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Radio Berkman: The Future of University in Cyberspace

COMMUNIA Conference on University and Cyberspace, photo from Flickr, under a CC license As a follow-up to last June COMMUNIA Conference on University and Cyberspace, recently Charles Nesson and David Weinberger discussed at Harvard's Berkman Center the outcome of the event, addressing in particular such issues as: What should be the mission of universities in cyberspace? How can our educational institutions promote ideals of free exchange of information yet cope with the complex intellectual property challenges presented by the net?

The resulting discussion -- available as an MP3 podcast (45 minutes) or in an edited, shorter version, with recorded quotes from speakers at the Conference (including J.C. De Martin, with C. Nesson in the side photo) -- is a true instance of 'food for thought', warmly suggested to anybody interested in the future relationship between universities and the digital world. Here follows a short summary of this Radio Berkman episode. [23oct10]

Charlie Nesson opens the discussion by defining the Public Domain as the "common wealth accessible to all the citizens of the Net", the bits of knowledge freely available online with no risk of being sued for copyright infringement. Most people consider and use the Internet as a radio, from which they can take and share files with innocence, having no sense of their ownership by someone else. Even more, we should take into account the creator point of view in accessing public domain content.

Quoting Juan Carlos De Martin at the Conference, Nesson explains that we must consider the many creative users who actually do something with those files downloaded from the Internet, they re-use and remix them in entirely new ways. Therefore, media literacy about free access and creative reuse are redefining the role of modern university in the networking age.

In recent decades, however, many universities started also to assert and exercise their intellectual property rights, effectively entering the profit-making market, which is essentially a distraction from their original mission of spreading public knowledge. But even if commercial companies began to drive the scholarly publishing arena, it is fair to say that today's internet penetration is boosting again the concept of the university as a major repository of 'knowledge commons'.

Another challenge is to rethink the physical space of this new university, where virtual environments collide with 'normal' libraries, therefore requiring a new physical/spatial infrastructure for the 'digital natives' -- as pointed out by Berkman's John Palfrey at the Turin Conference. In this context, Weinberger and Nesson talk about an architecture that should be quite flexible, able to accommodate new and unexpected uses of those spaces despite the heavy materials employed (cement, steel, bricks, etc.). Regarding a digital architecture, universities should be even more flexible in adjusting to the decentralized environments supported by the Internet itself. The point, Nesson explains, is to keep alive the university's "old value" as a social, intellectual, learning structure, a place where young people spend time to socialize and grow-up. Despite its decentralization as a digital environment, tomorrow's university cannot fail to recognize its function in "teaching how to contribute to the public domain as part of what it means to be a citizen of the modern digital world".

Finally, based on its own cultural heritage, each university in the world should figure out what its future role will be in respect to its cyberspace extension. There are external powerful forces (e-commerce, IP bodies, pro-copyright laws, etc.) clearly opposed to the university as a major supporter of the 'knowledge commons'. But still, the future holds great promises. A university free of the pressure of commerce, industry and (for a good part) government, does seems to be a bastion for the reclaiming of the Internet space by students and academics. Indeed, the university should be able to contribute to the digital domain in the form of expression and articulation for students -- in order to empower them to launch a constructive movement that in turn can enhance the university as a central institution in the Internet Age.

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