University as Digital Citizen

Serving at a private liberal arts University in Wisconsin, we are less than a three-hour drive from the University of Wisconsin where the Wisconsin Idea was born. Simply stated, the Wisconsin Idea communicates a vision that the state University will serve the people and communities in which the University resides.  It will give, “advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities.”  Similarly, former Harvard President James Bryant Conant (note that I am certainly not condoning some of his other ideas by referring to him) is quoted on the September 23, 1946 issue of Time Magazine as saying, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance.”

Both of these quotes explore the relationship between the University and the broader community (local, regional, national, and/or global).  You might say that they explore the notion of University as citizen.  In today’s landscape, I propose that Universities also have the challenge and opportunity to consider their role as digital citizens, not only thinking about digital spaces and communities as resources for getting, but carefully reflecting upon how they might make positive contributions to the digital world.

This is an aspect of the online University presence that gets less attention in the media.  From this perspective, MOOCs serve as sort of extension sites that reach a wide array of people with valuable content, leaning opportunities, and networking experiences. Beyond MOOCs, we also see contributions in the form of faculty bloggers, scholars hosting Tweetups, the free sharing of scholarly sources, the opportunity to network and connect with University faculty, free and inexpensive webinars, online conferences, not to mention extended access to full programs through online learning.

All of these have strong connections to many University mission statements.  In fact, it is rare to see a University mission statement that makes references to courses, degrees, letter grades, and programs.  They tend to be much broader than that, about equipping students for making a difference in the world, or perhaps about creating a higher education community that has a positive impact upon society.  Mission statements vary from private to public institutions, from institutions informed by different faith or philosophical traditions, and also from teaching to research Universities.  Consider two mission statements from my state of Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin Madison Mission (excerpt)

“The primary purpose of the University of Wisconsin–Madison is to provide a learning environment in which faculty, staff and students can discover, examine critically, preserve and transmit the knowledge, wisdom and values that will help ensure the survival of this and future generations and improve the quality of life for all. The university seeks to help students to develop an understanding and appreciation for the complex cultural and physical worlds in which they live and to realize their highest potential of intellectual, physical and human development.”

Concordia University Wisconsin Mission Statement

“Concordia University Wisconsin is a Lutheran higher education community committed to helping students develop in mind, body, and spirit for service to Christ in the Church and the World.”

These two missions are qualitatively different. The first has a heavy focus upon research & scholarship while the second focuses upon equipping students.  The first directs the mission toward the highest human potential while the second focuses upon the Christian notion of vocation, people being equipped for service to their “neighbors” through their gifts, talents, and abilities. At the same time, they both focus upon a University purpose that has the intended goal of benefiting those beyond the campus itself.  This is an important purpose of Universities, even as we think about the current and future nature of the digital world.  Toward that end, Universities that embrace their role as digital citizens might consider a few simple guiding question to shape their online presence as digital citizens.

  • What is distinct or unique about what we have to offer at our University?  Can any of that be shared online through resources, communities, events, or networks?
  • To whom are we called to serve and how might we leverage online community to serve them?
  • How can we leverage the digital world to continue to provide support, education, and encouragement to alumni from our institution as they seek to live out their various life vocations?
  • How might we empower and equip individual University members (faculty and/or staff) to engage in scholarship or disseminate findings in the digital world?