A 1998 report by Carnegie Mellon University indicated that the chief reason people turn to social networking on the Internet is because they are "lonely." A few years later, this study was revisited. It turns out that Internet networkers aren't that lonely after all. Rather, they are people who enjoy communicating with others who share their specific intellectual or social characteristics but who might be quite removed from them geographically. They are more interested in creating communities of common concern and interest, and the Internet enables them to ignore physical distance.

The gap between these two studies is intriguing for the future of learning institutions. It is indubitably the case that many who seek new knowledge networks and virtual affiliations do so because they are, as the first Pew study implies, isolated--within their field, on their home campuses. They may well have few, if any, other colleagues within their institutions who share their vision. They could be described as "lonely." However, it is far more productive to see them as searching out colleagues committed to expanding the ways in which new media technologies could be put to productive purpose in pedagogy and research. In the manner of the "long tail" and Web 2.0, we hope that the process of creating this collaborative position paper might well also bring together and represent this vast if distributed community, both virtually and actually. Representation, as we all know, is key to recognition, recognition is key to change. Institutions are mobilizing networks. And, conversely, mobilized networks change institutions.

Following scholars such as Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks), we dispute the idea that learning (or any other "commodity") must only happen within single, fixed, pre-identified, or static institutions. Indeed, our definition of institutions as "mobilizing networks" offers a challenge to the insularity of lock-box education, libraries, community centers, or any other civic organizations that define their mission exclusively in terms of their turf, and highlights the possibilities of institutions grounded in distributed and virtual social networks (Wellman, Salaff, et al, 1996).

The single most important real estate for the future of learning is that of the imagination. This is why data-mining is the growth industry of Web 2.0 and semantic Web is the big corporate gamble of the future, why Google (itself a Web 2.0 phenomenon) is willing to pay billions of dollars for YouTube. UGC (User-Generated Content) is the corporate byword of 2006--the global capitalizing of the consumerist long tail. Universities guard their UGC just as zealously.

The challenges to learning institutions are formidable, not least to learner-based institutions. Educators want learners to know more or less what they know, or what they had to learn. Learners want to learn what they need. A more limited subset want to learn "what there is to learn," for its own sake. Finding the productive, interactive modality between those mandates is the challenge.

The challenges to re-imaging institutional configurations are equally considerable. How to support the imaginative possibilities of "smart mobs" (Rheingold, 2002) and other non-traditional institutional arrangements while avoiding merely replicating older, proprietary institutional models is no simple task.

We thus intend to begin our investigation by exploring a series of interlocking questions:

How do networking technology platforms and their applications enable the composition of robust learning communities and collaborative learning environments irrespective of geographical location?

What sorts of community can be thus fostered, and what kinds of collaboration best thrive in such environments?

What learning resources are made available that otherwise would not be?

What challenges are faced by composing and sustaining virtual learning institutions in this way?

Are younger generations of scholars more disposed to such distributed environments, less alienated by the technology, and more drawn to virtual social communities than older generations, and if so why?

Do the academic professions police those (Cummings, 2005) who would innovate outside of normal structures? If so, what can activist scholar/educators do to provide support for adventurous young pioneers of new learning methods and fields? What best learning practices are already in place utilizing Web 2.0 platforms and applications, and what technologies and uses can be envisaged in the near and more distant future?

What will archives look like on these platforms, and what are the best available and most imaginative, user-friendly digital libraries?

How, in short, to play on CalIT2 director Larry Smarr's insistent questions: How do we "live the future" and "live in the future"? * * *

These are some of the key questions we hope to address in the evolving, collaborative drafts of "The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age." We look forward to your comments.

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