[Disclosure: Other than an English degree, I lack the proper credentials to comment on what follows. Onward!]

Another fascinating imbroglio going down recently over at Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed, this time on a host of issues surrounding the University of Michigan’s MSI degree with specialization in Social Computing. A nutshell description of the program from the UM website:

Students pursuing a specialization in Social Computing learn to analyze
online social interactions, both in online communities and in more
diffuse social networks. They learn about features of social computing
technologies so they can recognize opportunities to put them to use in
new settings and make good choices about alternative implementations.

Will’s original post pointed out the irony of a social computing degree; his follow-up post asks good questions about whether we can systematically teach students to construct their own learning. Why not, he asks, skip the academic middleman and just use social computing to learn about social computing? Put to work the Web 2.0 personal learning networks available to all of us, and do it for free.

Early in the flurry of comments, Nate nailed the heart of the debate:

School is not about learning. It’s about credentials. We keep avoiding that reality.

Gotta love a cynic. Much of the discussion that followed focused on big questions. Is higher education about seeking credentials or seeking knowledge? Is it better to be a self-directed learner or part of a formal academic community? Debates tend to breed black-and-white thinking, and the dichotomies got more airtime in this one than the nuances and commonalities. The best answer to most of these either/or questions is usually both. The whole comment transcript is well worth reading and does yield some nuanced understandings, but I’m more concerned here with what’s driving UM’s creation of a social computing program, and its implications. 

The UM program description sounds an awful lot to me like it hasn’t quite made up its mind, like it’s straddling the fence between technical/science and liberal arts philosophies. That bit about "use in new settings and make good choices about alternative implementations" reminds me of the old rationale for earning something as outlandishly impractical as an English degree. It won’t get you a job, but it’ll make you well-rounded and better at whatever job you do eventually get—if you ever get one. The thousands of un-, under-, and oddly-employed English majors scattered over the earth offer a living (albeit on ramen noodles) rebuttal to Nate’s point. It has to be about the learning, at least sometimes, because this particular credential sure doesn’t go far.

Comments from Liz Lawley and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach offer useful insights into what UM is doing with a social computing specialization. . .and why.


Sometimes using conventional means is the only way to break into a new way of thinking. It seems less risky.


Schools, in the meantime, are apparently damned if they do teach
innovative curriculum (as this thread indicates) *and* damned if they
don’t, since the digerati then dis them for being irrelevant.


The real value of a formal educational process is that all too
often “we don’t know what we don’t know”–and so without a systematic
structured approach to a complex topic we run the very real risk of not
seeing the big picture, and falling into the trap of generalizing from
our anecdotal experience.

From the learner’s perspective, there’s a real tension here between the messy-emergent, self-directed learning approach of Web 2.0 and the formally-structured philosophy of the academe. But I think it’s a fallacy to assume the institutional perspective can’t also be messy-emergent. Surprising, yes. Impossible, no. Sheryl suggests that UM is acting as a change agent, working from the inside by conventional means and through recognized channels. Liz suggests that UM recognizes social computing as an emerging, legitimate area of study and is trying to bring "a systematic structured approach to a complex topic." But couldn’t UM simply be attempting to bridge the gap? In my own comment on Will’s post, I said:

What seems to be missing here is the U of Michigan perspective.
Much of the debate has been about the real-world necessity of the
degree-as-credential (someone used the “piece of paper” adage. . .
isn’t that a lovely irony?). Couldn’t it go the other way? Couldn’t
this degree program be construed as Michigan’s attempt to create a
calling card for itself in the edublogosphere—a sort of reverse


I like to think that UM is most interested in the kind of messy learning found in the Web 2.0 sandbox. Says Marcia from UM: 

Schools have been born in a state of flux, and in most cases have
added to that flux through ongoing innovation. There is no rest in this
process…Academic traditions are conservative and do not readily welcome
new fields of endeavor that appear to be searching for their center.
Hesitancy with respect to identity evokes suspicions of intellectual
weakness and lack of purpose.

Searching for a center? Touche. Social computing is a field of endeavor that by its very nature has no center—only networks.