The DARPA Network Challenge is a classic study of how the Internet and social networking can mobilize society to solve difficult, time-sensitive problems. The polymath blog hosts massively collaborative mathematical research projects, encouraging anyone who wants to participate “to throw out ideas about how to solve problems,” Shirky explained. And the Ben Franklin Project subverted the traditional newsgathering process by empowering the audience to determine the stories on which Journal Register writers and editors should focus.
In each case, Shirky said, participants were replacing old models with new, more collaborative systems. As he sees it, today’s college and university IT leaders should be doing the same.
“IT changes the world by making impossible problems trivial,” said Shirky, a member of the New York University faculty, author of two books on social media and consultant who is widely known for his study of the social and cultural effects of the Internet and mobile phones in facilitating group action.
Solving large problems becomes more feasible, he continued, when people work together. “The mantra for many in IT has been to proceed until apprehended,” Shirky joked. “But you can be more than digital janitors. Look for the places where you can have a small conversation” about how to do things differently, rather than “getting bogged down in the five-year plan. If you show enough small-scale successes that are interesting, you can get some breathing room” to pursue the projects that will really revolutionize what your institutions are doing, he added.
For more EDUCAUSE 2012 coverage, visit our EDUCAUSE 2012 page.